Thursday, 29 October 2015


Just read 'Willpower' by Roy F.Baumeister and John Tierney, a pop-science self-help book collecting the recent research on willpower and where it comes from.

Long story short, its your blood sugar. Have something to eat.

I can't tell if I hate this book at not. I think I don't hate it but I want to slap it in the face.

Reasons to slap this book;

- Handy celebrity commentary, Oprah! Amanda Palmer! Drew Carey! Eric Clapton! David Blaine!

- Studies say studies say studies say. Studies speak like fucking delphic oracles apparently. These sentences are all from different chapters;

"..researchers in Finland went to a prison to measure the glucose tolerance of prisoners about the be released"
"..the group with the proximal goals outperformed everybody else.."
"Suppose, as a story telling exercise, you finish that story about Joe any way you like."
"Suppose you are a married man who is the Governer of a large state in the American northeast."
"In one experiment, people were invited to choose which, if any, of several items they'd like to buy."
"In an experiment one halloween, some of the trick-or-treaters who visited the home of a psychologist were aske their names, directed to a side room, and told to take one - and only one - piece of candy."
".. as demonstrated in experiments by Ayelet Fishbach of the universty of Chicago."
"To score well you had to ignore the jokes and the laughter, focusing instead on the boring squares"
"In another part of the experiment, however, the men were instructed to answer the questions while they were masturbating and in a state of high arousal."
"The researchers, led by Carlo DiClemente of the University of Maryland, measured a large assortment of psychological variables and then tracked the men intensively for several months to test a variety of hypotheses, many of which didn't work out."
"Before his famous marshmallow experiments with children..."

- Authority

Most or many of the things you can do to test for willpower are also tests for submission to authority.

If you test a child or an undergraduate for willpower you are, to some extent, also testing their willingness to do what they are told by you, an authority figure.

There is almost no way to test someones willpower in a scientific setting without also testing their relationship to authority because even the kinds of people who turn up will be decided by that and once they arrive there has to be a person there to set rules, hand out forms and tell them whats going on.

Even when you use tricky bullshit like 'oh you thought you were being tested for your taste in cheese but in fact it was WILLPOWER, then the subject is still inside a structure set by someone else.

How do you measure anti-authoritarian or just non-authoritarian willpower?

Conversely, how much impulsivity is tied to rejection of power or just wanting something other than what is offered?

We only find out about the good things that come with high willpower. Are any bad things linked to high willpower? If high willpower is closely linked to obedience to authority and a disinterest in questioning social norms, might we find high levels of willpower in societies with hierarchical and conservative institutions?

What if impulsivity correlates strongly with rejection of power structures or hyper-individuality, is it a cause, a consequence or both?

- Creativity and Feeling

Decision fatigue is strongly correlated to both impulsiveness and risk-avoidance. People who are decision tired seem to both make rash immediate-pleasure choices yet also put off hard choices till later, or simply refuse to decide, going with the flow

But decision fatigue also makes you feel more. Both good and bad emotions are more deeply felt,

How does this relate to art? To make art you need to feel. Many of the things I have made have been driven by deep feeling and I was often lead towards them by feeling rather than cold analysis.

But to make art you also need to get stuff done, and for that you need self control, and self control is somehow opposed to deep feeling and perhaps to intuition. Its predictable and seems to mimic or follow the pattern of the world.

I have had a bunch of strange and interesting ideas when I am tired. Sometimes I have had good ideas in the emotional lee after a really unpleasant day at work. Which shouldn't be the case. Being stressed doesn't make me creative, it kills me inside.

But, sometimes if I am stressed, or at least driven without being emotionally dis-stressed, then have a period of calm and not-doing-much, an original idea can kind of flow out of me almost fully formed, as if it was being constructed all along inside my head without me knowing and then just kind of gave birth to itself.

So maybe art requires periods of 'not-art' to work. Or a cycle or circle of self-control to get stuff done and attain known goals, then decision fatigue to feel deeply and be driven by unexpected and unpredictable intuition.

Are people with strong willpower somehow 'less creative'? Did anyone look into anything like this? Are people with high willpower bad at anything? Did anyone think to ask?

- Empathy

People with good willpower are more altruistic, or at least they _do_ things for other people more. Or maybe people who are more altruistic have more willpower?

The most interesting part of the book is about the explorer Henry Stanley and one of the darkest and strangest parts of that is when Stanley leaves behind a rear camp of high status europeans in the jungle who, after he leaves, go total fucking Colonel Kurtz.

But Stanley never seems to;

"I have learnt by actual stress of imminent danger, in the first place, that self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder, and, in the second place, that persistent self-control under the provocation of African travel is impossible without real, heartfelt sympathy for the natives with whom one has to deal.


The writers say that willpower is useful for empathy because it helps you suppress darker urges, they see it as a tool but they don't say much more. Does empathy help you conserve willpower? Does empathy somehow create or sustain willpower or change your moral relation to the people around you?

- Intellectual Mediocrity

I made a brief list of things the guys who wrote this book don't seem to have any meaningful understanding of;

Genuinely believing in anything outside yourself as anything other than a tool.

'-' "Have willpower."

'o'  "To what end?"

'-' "To get a good car and a career and a house and a wife and a nice circle of friends."

'o'  "Ok but why want those."

'-'  "Those are the definitions of happiness and success."

'o'  "But what if they are pointless?"

'-'  "If you think that then you won't get them and you won't be successful!"

Like maybe all self-help books its boostery and kind of closed in around its own furious rationality and staring at the world through a toilet tube. To some useful effect, but still. There's nothing that can't be pulled into the book, held up for an example or a handy epigraph for a paragraph or two, then just as quickly cast aside. The entire history of religion, for instance, was apparently a primitive way of helping to focus and control willpower, and....

and probably there was other stuff to do with religion as well but we don't really go into that, we've got online self-quantifying programmes now that will tell you how many eggs you have had.

I'm talking about this book like I hate it. I don;t hate it, I just want to slap it.

Its one up from a Malcolm Gladwell book at least.


  1. What rubs you the wrong way with Malcolm Gladwell?
    Not trying to be accusatory, he just always seemed like a fairly neutral writer, unless I've completely overlooked something.

    1. Mainly the ease and glibness with which he flits between different subjects, specialities and studies, stitching them together into a kind of collage of thought which is both very persuasive when first read, but also very difficult to argue with because it has no depth.

      Generally when learning about the world I have found that the deeper you get into a single subject, the more layers of contrasting and conflicting information there are to understand. A subject or study *as a whole* might give a powerful general trend or single idea, but when you get into it you usually find there are opposing possibilities or elements which seem to go strongly against the general trend.

      I think that's the reason that a lot of deep-thought people tend towards intellectual reserve, a 'wait-and-see' attitude and a refusal to make quick, encompassing judgements like the ones Gladwell makes in pretty much every book. They know their subject is highly complex and, because they know a lot about it, they know they do not fully understand it.

      When you leap about from place to place as Gladwell does, its relatively easy to find fragments of connecting knowledge, (a study here, a study there, an example here, an example there) which branch together to illuminate and confirm an idea you already had the shape of.

      In fact its hard *not* to do this.

      I try to be aware of this because its a danger for people like me. Like Gladwell I'm a good generalist and a pretty good writer, that means its easy for me to fool myself into thinking I'm right by skating between things I have only lightly investigated.

      (There's a De Tocqueville where he basically beats the shit out of the American hunger for simple general ideas that seem to enfold or explain everything and which are believed easily and forgotten almost as soon as they are read.)

      I you want to look more at this point of view on Gladwell you could try here

      or just google 'malcolm gladwell glib'

    2. I should also state that I don't _hate_ Gladwell either. I often find him quite interesting. It's just that, like these guys above, I have powerfully mixed feelings about him and and often quite sceptical of him.

    3. Patrick, I like Gladwell books quite a lot but can't help but share your feelings on them. Skepticism is healthy when the pieces all seem to fit together too neatly. I think Gladwell is good for the curious layman. He asks interesting questions, and fitting comprehensive answers into a few hundred pages for the layman would be a tall order.

  2. I have a similar experience with Gladwell or seemingly wise self help books - at first the respect for such cutting insight and cleverly noticed parallels, then confusion after exploring any anecdote in depth, then mild disgust that I swallowed his generalist hypothesis so readily. A friend sent me this link last week:

  3. I have a similar experience with Gladwell or seemingly wise self help books - at first the respect for such cutting insight and cleverly noticed parallels, then confusion after exploring any anecdote in depth, then mild disgust that I swallowed his generalist hypothesis so readily. A friend sent me this link last week:

  4. Hey, neuroscience/psych guy here (and blog reader, love your stuff!). You've got an interesting angle in this review.

    The current use of the concept of "willpower" seems to boil down physically to the ability of the cortex to override suggestions from the limbic system, either the flight-or-fight response or the cue-action-reward cycle of habits that get stored in the basal ganglia.

    Since the brain runs on glucose, yeah, this is going to be bounded by blood sugar (unless someone is in ketosis and the brain is running on fat*). And it makes sense that overriding survival mechanisms would be a costly operation. But this shit is really complex and poorly understood, and a high-performance engine is more than the gasoline. There is the health and size/efficiency of parts of the cortex, and the communication between the cortex and the rest of the brain, the way memories are stored and accessed to be applied to current situations (which is mostly unconscious), etc. Damage those physical structures or disrupt those systems, or alternately improve them through various means, and willpower capacity/ impulsivity WILL change.

    Your bit about responsiveness to authority is really interesting and worth examining. It *appears* possible to apply willpower directly against cultural conditioning or personal temperament, so they may be different things.

    About "getting an idea when tired": if you get a chance, I highly recommend checking out A Mind For Numbers by Barbara Oakley, or otherwise looking into the "focused vs diffuse modes" model of learning and problem solving. The basic idea is that creative insights seem to trigger when the conscious working memory is exhausted or doing something else (half-asleep, driving, looking at trees, etc.). Willpower is involved insamuch as it protects the focused mode of thinking from distractions long enough to set the stage for the diffuse mode.

    Anyway, sorry for the ramble, but yeah. Talking about "willpower" is like talking about THAC0, and in the end I think it's just a tool that can be applied to situations that crop up in life. Like upholding outmoded and unexamined societal views of "success" in a capitalist culture, I guess.


    *People who are consuming such a low volume of carbs that their brain is forced to run on fat usually report greatly enhanced mental clarity after a foggy adjustment period. I don't think anyone has done any willpower studies on ketogenic individuals, though.