Willpower and belief

I’ve blogged a bunch now about Roy Baumeister’s work on self-control, including the idea that willpower is finite in the short-term, and is depleted throughout the day as you use it. So I feel compelled to post this NYT op-ed claiming something quite different. I don’t know who’s right, but here’s the gist:

In research that we conducted with the psychologist Veronika Job, we confirmed that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head…

…You may contend that these results show only that some people just happen to have more willpower — and know that they do. But on the contrary, we found that anyone can be prompted to think that willpower is not so limited. When we had people read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better on I.Q. problems.

I’ll keep my eyes open for a response to this from Baumeister or his colleagues, and let me know if you see one. Meanwhile, this reminded me of a similar phenomenon with respect to IQ:

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.

Both of these lines of research suggest that belief matters. Fascinating stuff.

Don’t blog on an empty stomach


(The clip above covers some basics of mental energy and depletion.)

The alternative title for this post was “I’m hungry; you’re wrong.” I’m not sure which is better… In any case, consider this bit from Kahneman:

Resisting this large collection of potential availability biases is possible, but tiresome. You must make the effort to reconsider your intuitions… Maintaining one’s vigilance against biases is a chore — but the chance to avoid a costly mistake is sometimes worth the effort.

Now as I understand it, this is basically a function of self-control. By taxing your brain to counteract biases, you’re drawing on a finite pool of mental energy. We know from studies of willpower that doing so can cause problems. As John Tierney reported in an excellent NYT Magazine piece on decision fatigue:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

He also relates a fascinating study of Israeli parole hearings:

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

It gets more interesting:

As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar… The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly.

So, returning to the Kahneman bit, I wonder if we might observe a similar phenomenon with respect to political bloggers. Would ad hominem attacks follow the same pattern throughout the day? Might bloggers who had just eaten have the mental energy to counter their biases, to treat opponents with respect, etc.? And might that ability be depleted as the time between meals wears on and their mental energy is lowered? This could be tested pretty easily by analyzing the frequency of certain ad hominem clues like, say, the use of the word “idiot”, and then checking frequency against time of day. I’d love to see this data, and not just because I want an excuse to snack while I write.

Enough self-control not to need it


I just finished Willpower, the new book by psychologist Roy Baumeister and NYT columnist John Tierney. My overall take on the book is towards the end of this post. I first was introduced to the science of self-control via the Bloggingheads video above, which I highly recommend. The most fascinating bit to me was the fact that aggregate self-control predicts happiness in couples, but that self-control “opposites” attract. If you’re high self-control, you’ll be attracted to the messy procrastinator, but you’ll be happier with the similarly fastidious, strong-willed mate. Neat stuff, right? So I was pretty excited for this book.

The video made clear that willpower was both a scarce resource in the short term – using it on one thing like resisting food meant you had less of it for something seemingly unrelated like holding your temper – and able to be strengthened over the long term. On any given day you have a finite amount of willpower, but like a muscle it can be strengthened over time.

That got me wondering if there was a tension between self-control and the sort of “choice architecture” pre-commitment devices  tricks recommended by folks like Dan Ariely. If Ariely recommends putting your credit card in ice so you don’t overspend, are you actually foregoing the opportunity to strengthen your self-control, to your long-term detriment?

I emailed philosopher Josh Knobe (from the BhTV video) about this in July 2010, putting it this way:

In the diavlog, you discuss how self-control is finite – at least in the short-term.  Yet, over the long-term it’s something you can exercise and grow.  So hypothetically let’s say I’m the kind of person who would have eaten the marshmallow.  I have low self-control that needs to be dealt with somehow.

One prescription would be to practice self-control and build up my resources there.  But it seems like there’s another solution that’s also being popularized at present, in line with some of the work of behavioral economists including folks like Dan Ariely.  This school of thought seems to suggest that if I have a tendency to make a certain bad decision that jeopardizes my long-term happiness, I can deal with that by taking steps to constrain my future actions, to alter the choices I’ll have to make in ways that make me more likely to make good decisions.

But does this strategy come at the expense of developing needed self-control?

To take a specific example… Say I have a problem with credit card debt.  I just can’t help myself from buying things with my credit card that I can’t afford.  Ariely says I’d be better off just carrying around cash since I feel a twinge of guilt when I pay with it, and I’d be less likely to build up debt.

But in a way, this is skirting the self-control issue.  I’m actively avoiding that circumstance where I lack self-control, which may be missing an opportunity to build up greater stores of it for the future.  You could object that I could still build up self-control in other arenas, while using the cash technique.  But if you consider these two strategies more generally, I still see at least a potential conflict.

So the question is this: in general, will I be better off coming up with tricks and systems to avoid decisions that require significant self-control that I might not have, per Ariely?  Or should I face these decisions head on, and use the practice to build up greater self-control in the long run?

Professor Knobe was kind enough to respond. He didn’t answer definitively but guessed that in practice it wouldn’t end up being a problem (my intuition as well). And yet I remained curious. So I was pleased to see Baumeister and Tierney provided the answer in Willpower:

Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often? But then an explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. This explanation jived with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and work. (pg. 239)

So there shouldn’t be any tension here. To change your choice architecture takes self-control. If you’re taking tips about avoiding vices from Ariely or anyone else, you still are getting in your self-control “practice” in instituting the change. And so you build up self-control and then also don’t need to expend it in the face of temptation (since you’ve avoided it). That leaves you with built up discipline to institute new life changes to further avoid temptations, and so on. So in practice it seems clear to me that the tension I’d wondered about doesn’t exist.

So that was nice to finally have settled.

Now, the book in general… I have to say I think this is a mediocre book on a fantastic topic. Baumeister’s research is fascinating and Tierney is an excellent writer, but I felt throughout that the material was just a little thin for filling up a whole book. That’s how I interpreted the inclusion of things like David Blaine or Drew Carey and Oprah’s battles with self-control. They felt a bit like filler. Perhaps I’m wrong, and they were meant to make the book more accessible. But the writing was already admirably accessible and the material incredibly relevant. There seemed to be no need to add these lengthy anecdotes.

There was also a fair amount of confusion and potential contradictions. Am I supposed to only make one goal at a time? Or always have several? Both are recommended at different points. Should I make goals that are “bright lines”, like no drinking, or set realistic goals like cutting back only a little? Both are recommended. These contradictions aren’t inherent; I’m certain that in conversation with Baumeister or Tierney they could explain how these aren’t in tension. But many of these seeming contradictions went unaddressed (some were addressed, to be fair).

This is still worth a read if, like me, you find the subject fascinating. But I couldn’t help but think that it had the meat of about 3 excellent long-form magazine pieces (like the terrific one Tierney did on decision fatigue!) that could have cut out the attempt to read self-control lessons into figures in popular culture and could have been slightly more careful in their recommendations.

But this is stuff you need to learn more about. You’ll get a lot out of the book if you’re not familiar with the subject. If you’re not sold based on my lukewarm review, at least read the Tierney article or watch the BhTV video. As for me, I knew when I came home from work and decided to blog that I was using up willpower, leaving me less available to force myself to go for a run. But I’m going to try to use the last of my glucose – yep, read about it – to get a few miles in.

UPDATE: changed choice architecture to pre-commitment devices, which is a bit clearer. And I did get my run in. Go willpower.

Willpower and education

Via Yglesias, Kay Steiger has good thoughts:

Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from University of Maryland University College pointed out during the Q&A period session of the event, many students struggle with basic computer and internet literacy. It seems those that are best positioned to take advantage of the “edupunk” perspective, might just be those who are likely to attend a four-year residential college or university anyway.

That’s not to take away from students who have used the system—or lack thereof—that Kamenetz presents to find success. After all, learning on your own takes a huge amount of discipline and passion for the subject area you are pursuing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the solution to education may not lie in the idea of traditional lectures by professors and exams. But how we get to that decentralized kind of learning will be a very interesting journey.

I find this compelling. Motivation is a major barrier to education. But we may be able to make considerable progress in that area simultaneously, as I briefly mentioned here. Yglesias describes his desire to learn more math, but his inability to motivate himself to do it. That motivation is a barrier even to such a clearly highly motivated person speaks to the seriousness of the issue. The fact is, we’re learning more and more about how motivation works (at least if my current reading list is any indication). So I’m optimistic that we can crack this. And if we can, and can also deal with the accreditation issue, we’ll be able to launch a revolution in education.

(FWIW, I’ve dabbled in various learning opportunities through Carnegie Mellon’s OLI, other open courseware offerings, and Khan Academy.)

UPDATE: Kevin Drum adds:

Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you’re in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don’t go to class and don’t do the homework, but lots do. But if you’re studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it’s a level that, frankly, most of us just aren’t capable of.

What struck me about this is the fact that college isn’t really all that great of a commitment advice. I, for one, did not always feel obligated to go to class. And though it basically works the way Drum describes it, from a motivational standpoint I think it’s a pretty low bar to clear. Plenty of college students are not well motivated. Plenty of students drop out. Merely beginning to focus on motivation as a major piece of the education puzzle could potentially produce sizable gains.

UPDATE 2: Speaking of…

Willpower is the future

I’m excited to read Willpower, the new book by John Tierney (NYT) and psychologist and self-control expert Roy Baumeister (Florida State). I haven’t cracked it yet, but in preparation let me share a couple quick takes on motivation and why I think the future will include a lot of emphasis on hacking self-control. Here’s Jonah Lehrer:

For most of human history, the progress of knowledge was constrained by a shortage of information. Books were expensive and rare, libraries were reserved for elite scholars and communication was extremely slow. Mail moved at the speed of horses.

Now, of course, we live in the age of Google and Amazon Prime, a time when nearly everything ever written can be accessed within seconds or delivered within days. Facts are cheap and easy; the cellphone has become an infinite library.

But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills.

Yet, despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function. Even worse, education departments are slashing the very activities, such as physical exercise and the arts, that boost executive function among the broadest range of students.

And here’s Tyler Cowen on “the future of work”:

Cowen also envisions job growth in the motivational sector.

I’ll be writing more about this in the upcoming weeks. If you want to learn more about this stuff in the meantime, I recommend this NYT Mag piece by Tierney, and this Bloggingheads discussion between Baumeister and experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe.

I don’t want to oversell the role that motivation plays in our lives (more on that here), but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a real bottleneck for many of us. And we’re likely to see quite a bit of willpower-enabling technology applications in the next decade or two.

Poverty, culture, economics

If you’re at all interested in the science of willpower, self-control, or decision-making (and I am) you really should read John Tierney’s excellent NYT Magazine piece on the subject. Here’s one nugget:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

When we talk about poverty, we inevitably talk about various “cultural” issues, by which we mostly mean “non-economic” issues. Economic improvement can’t pull people out of poverty until we solve various cultural issues that are holding people back, or so the story goes. But we should really look at these as all part of the same cycle. Being poor puts you at a distinct and empirically demonstrable disadvantage when it comes to exerting self-control. Lack of self-control tends to play a large role in life outcomes. Much of what we think of as the “culture” of poverty may in fact be very much an economic issue.

Anti-bias calisthenics

I highly recommend this excellent piece “The Brain on Trial” from The Atlantic’s July/August issue. This bit stood out as relevant to some of the writing I’ve been doing on overcoming bias:

We may be on the cusp of finding new rehabilitative strategies as well, affording people better control of their behavior, even in the absence of external authority. To help a citizen reintegrate into society, the ethical goal is to change him as little as possible while bringing his behavior into line with society’s needs. My colleagues and I are proposing a new approach, one that grows from the understanding that the brain operates like a team of rivals, with different neural populations competing to control the single output channel of behavior. Because it’s a competition, the outcome can be tipped. I call the approach “the prefrontal workout.”

The basic idea is to give the frontal lobes practice in squelching the short-term brain circuits. To this end, my colleagues Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu have begun providing real-time feedback to people during brain scanning. Imagine that you’d like to quit smoking cigarettes. In this experiment, you look at pictures of cigarettes during brain imaging, and the experimenters measure which regions of your brain are involved in the craving. Then they show you the activity in those networks, represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen, while you look at more cigarette pictures. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: if your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low. Your job is to make the bar go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the craving; perhaps the mechanism is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. When it goes all the way down, that means you’ve successfully recruited frontal circuitry to squelch the activity in the networks involved in impulsive craving. The goal is for the long term to trump the short term. Still looking at pictures of cigarettes, you practice making the bar go down over and over, until you’ve strengthened those frontal circuits. By this method, you’re able to visualize the activity in the parts of your brain that need modulation, and you can witness the effects of different mental approaches you might take.

If these tactics can be successful for controlling the impulse to have a cigarette, could something similar work to counter one’s biases? Could we train the mental levers that are responsible for motivated reasoning? In some sense this – like much in bias research – should be intuitive. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Keep your mind open. We know our susceptibility to bias isn’t static. What can neuroscience tell us about how to train ourselves to think more rationally?

(Note: it’s not emotion vs. reason as by now we grasp that emotion is central to all reasoning, biased or not.)