“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