Book review: Willpower by Baumeister & Tierney

“Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength”, Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, 2011


I’ve just finished this book, and yet I still couldn’t tell you what it was trying to claim. It’s a grab-bag of research on willpower, nearly all of it done by social psychologist Baumeister and colleagues, and including his celebrated experiments on ego-depletion. The ego-depletion experiments appear to show that willpower is a limited resource dependent on blood sugar. Using it to control your impulses diminishes it in the short-term, but can build it up – like a muscle – in the long term. Ultimately, however, this book presents this set of findings with little to offer in terms of coherent insight. The advice given for our daily lives is glib and unhelpful. The reader is told, for example, that to avoid smirking at an idiotic boss in a meeting, we should avoid strenuous mental work beforehand (p27). As if we all have the liberty of avoiding strenuous mental work whenever we want! Being told not to be tired sort of begs the question, in my opinion, and in self-help terms is about as useful as being told to “be clever” or “have great ideas”.

The case studies which pepper the book are brief and unsatisfying, obviously intended to give the ideas the appearances of flavour, rather than add any real depth whatever argument is being made. In general, the writing is adequate to poor, with an over reliance on a set of cheap journalistic tricks to sustain momentum. Journalistic tricks such as the one I use in the next paragraph…

…Annoying isn’t it? The references to events and celebrities who have temporarily floated to the surface of the toilet bowl of American popular culture will make this book date very badly in the next few years (and already meant that this, admittedly sheltered, British reader had to use wikipedia to work out who was being talked about in some chapters). I’m guessing that science journalist Tierney wrote this book, with advice from Baumeister (an impression fostered by the authors’ insistence on talking about themselves in the third person, which is disorienting). Even so, some of the psychological clangers are inexcusable and would shame an undergraduate (for example, squirrels burying nuts for later are dismissed as following “programmed behaviours, not conscious saving plans” (p15). To make this assertion gives the impression that we know both what a squirrel is thinking and what the nature of a conscious saving plan is (we don’t). To arbitrarily dismiss the highly flexible and foresightful behaviour of the squirrel as merely “programmed” prevents you, at one stroke, from understanding properly the role of automatic mental processes in our own future-orientated behaviour). The examples of sexism, on the other hand, are at least so blatant that they can be enjoyed for the full force of their anachronistic misogyny. (p56 tells us “most women cope quite well with PMS at work”, which has a lovely quality of being superficially positive, whilst implying that actually we should expect many women not to be able to cope, especially at work, and even those who do only manage to do it “quite well”.). The references to the literature are patchy, making it frustrating if you want to check the source for some of the authors’ most interesting claims.

Overall this book is a great disappointment. Roy Baumeister is one of the most exciting social psychologists, managing to do experimental work which addresses fundamental issues of what it means to be human. This book, on the other hand, is an example of how sterile experimental psychology can be when faced with the complexities of a core human dilemma, such as that of self-control. Although it is written in a breezy style, it never really grips the attention like the books of Malcolm Gladwell (which it obviously aspires to emulate). Because the treatment of the psychological evidence is superficial, and it never gives a full account of exactly what theoretical position they are trying to argue for or against, the book is scientifically unsatisfying. The other flaws I’ve discussed above make it, overall, an annoying book to read.

If you want a self-help book with an appreciation of the psychology of willpower, read Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you want an entertaining and accessible account of the science of volition read Dan Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will. If you want an account of self-control with a genuine appreciation of the nuances of the human condition try George Ainslie’s Breakdown of Will. This book will satisfy none of these needs.

Full disclosure: I’m reviewing this book because I was asked to by the publisher, who sent me a free copy. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it

UPDATE: So apparently quite means “very” in American English, while it means “fairly” in British English. This changes the sense of the PMS line I quote slightly, perhaps making it less insulting, but I would argue that the whole is still patronising and sexist (as are other lines in the book). Thanks Chris for the tip-off

18 Comments

  1. Posted September 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I actually heard one of the authors (not sure which) speak about the book in a public radio interview. He was taking questions from callers and I kept feeling irritated by what sounded like empty subject matter.

  2. Josie
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    The concept of willpower is connected to freedom of the will, isn’t it…

    I think that willpower is one of the most poisonous and unhelpful concepts in existence. Any progress I’ve ever made in my life has come through abandoning it. Good self-management is not about shouting at yourself, its about working out how to change the environment so it makes you bahave in the ways that you want to behave.

    It is like that story about a man trying to get a kitten to pull a cart. And people say “you’re mad. Look at the size of that kitten”. And he says “yes, but look at the size of this whip!” What a wanker.

    But thinking about it, I am curious whether the whole mistaken concept is related to a much bigger misunderstanding, tha might link to freedom of the will. Cue Dan Dennett etc.

  3. @tomstafford
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Aha! This is exactly what Richard Holton said in his “Willing wanting, waiting” http://web.mit.edu/holton/www/pubs/bookpdf/index.html that the notion of freedom of the will and willpower are intimately connected, even though philosophically the are traditionally dealt with entirely separately. I am giving a talk about free will in Manchester on Dec 8th where I will talk about these things

  4. Posted September 27, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Darn, I’m sorry this book was so disappointing to you, especially since you are generally a fan of the author.

    Thanks for the honest review!

  5. Posted September 28, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Sounds awful. Note that “quite” means different things in British and American English (or so I understand).

  6. Posted September 28, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Awww, that this is bad makes me sad, ‘specially as I’m such a fan of dual-tier cognitive models in general (automaticity/higher-order control; declarative/procedural; etc). Thanks for the write up… For a nice palate cleanser, try Masao Ito’s new book! http://www.amazon.com/Cerebellum-Brain-Implicit-Press-Science/dp/0137050682

  7. Posted September 28, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Wow! A George Ainslie fan and a Dan Wegner fan too. You went up two notches, but I question the GTD endorsement. Care to defend?

  8. Nolly
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Is there supposed to be something in between “in the next paragraph…” and “…Annoying, isn’t it?”, or are the ellipses and forward-reference the trick you’re referring to? The next sentence seems to take as established something that hadn’t been mentioned, so I’m a bit confused. (Or is _that_ the trick? Now I’m overthinking…)

  9. Raine
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    well, it seems probably that the title is the work intended to “read through it” and how the author “forced himself” to pen the book… just a light-hearted thought… like the old t-shirt slogan: it is the ability of the brain to override the body’s wish to… (can’t complete the slogan ‘coz it might offend)… warmest wishes :-}

  10. Rita
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    “Quite” used to mean “very” in Br. English, too, surely? “You must be quite mad to think of doing that”.

  11. bgg
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Virtue? a fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many – either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry – why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts; whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion.

    I,iii 319-331 Othello the Moor of Venice, William Shakespeare

  12. tomstafford
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    @Piers – Yes, a GTD fan. Basically, it works for me! I think the key insight (which is one of the few places the Baumeister book is interesting) is that stuff for which you haven’t made plans still occupies your thoughts. Making plans to deal with things can free up that mental space. What’s your critique, since I’m presuming you’re *not* a fan

  13. Neil
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I am only about one third of the way through the Baumeister/Tierney book, but I have a very different reaction. I work on ego-depletion, which might explain it, but I don’t find the thesismthe least unclear or unhelpful. I have been putting ego-depletion to work in my own life for years: try to limit the number of problems that confront youmper day, order them so that difficult ones are not clustered, etc. Granted, I have a degree of autonomy in how my day is structured that most lack, but many many people have enough control over their environment to put the advice to work (most simply, don’t leave temptations in line of sight so that you are working to resist them). That said, I am sceptical of the notion of the will. Willpower exists, but it depends on domain-general resources, not the will.

    I doubt I can be in Manchester on December 8. Any chance you might be willing to share your paper?

  14. @tomstafford
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    @Nolly – apologies this is me badly characturing the technique used in the book; there’s not a bit missing

    @Neil – I’m confused when you say “That said, I am sceptical of the notion of the will. Willpower exists, but it depends on domain-general resources, not the will.”. Could you expand please?

    And I’ll certainly send you the paper from Manchester, when i’ve written it!

  15. Neil
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Tom,
    Baumeister identifies the will with the mechanisms of ego depletion. Ego depletion involves the conservation of a resource. But the will is supposed to be some kind of causal power, not an energy source. Further, the domain of this energy is not limited to choice, decision- making or self-control. Rather, it extends to the entire domain of system 2 processes. I have argued for this claim here:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00424.x/full

    Thanks for the offer to send the paper. I look forward to it!

  16. CJ
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    Just finished Willpower and enjoyed it immensely. It is written with clarity and wit and just enough lab documentation to keep it grounded. Contemporary subjects are used as concrete examples of the concepts in practice. The authors use the information to give practical and doable advice on how to increase willpower in everyday activities.

  17. Shereen
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Yes I have just finished the book and I absolutely agree with you it’s a waste of time

  18. havefaith
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Deciding to be a more dicisplined and self-control person is easy for most of us. What’s follow next isnt necessarily walk in the park. The intention of the author only providing us with some of his insight on willpower.

    Nonetheless, it’s everyone own’s right to see the propose contents in a way he or he perceived it.
    Anyway, this book centralized around the idea that wkllpower is finite sources of human being. Thus, dont waste it!

    Next, by accomplishing small things, it’s a way of exercising and expanding your own willpower. Definitely there would be some willpower and effort when you first attempt to floss yout teeths or using weaker hand handling your lappy mouse.

    I agree some of the proposition in this book seems unreal and waste of time reading it, let alone attempting it. Ninetheless, there are still a lot to be benefited from us all as reader. When doing something you believe it to be good, go doing it relentlessly. That is willpower. Mind floss your teeth?


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