Jan 05

“The Willpower Instinct”: Kelly McGonigal’s Views

The development of willpower–I will, I won’t and I want–may define what it means to be human. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct

What could be more needed and/or relevant in early January than Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011)?

And who could be more qualified to write such a book than the woman whose course at Stanford on “The Science of Willpower” regularly draws so much interest?

What is willpower? In an interview with Kate Torgovnick May (TED blog) McGonigal states: “I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to…There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.”

As compiled from various sources, below are some of her main points in The Willpower Instinct:

  • The three skills of self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are what can fend off the three biggest challenges to willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress.
  • “If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.” Conversely, not paying attention is conducive to losing impulse control.
  • Want to increase your willpower? Exercise it like a muscle.
  • Your willpower will be at its peak when you wake up and decline throughout the day.
  • Sleeping enough and eating healthily helps.
  • Giving yourself small rewards also helps.
  • Guilt over setbacks does not—it often contributes to giving up, at least for a while.
  • Alarming people about the negative nature of their habits is often not beneficial.

An example of how the latter point might play out, per McGonigal:

A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words ‘WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer’ and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, ‘Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!’

What should you do when your own willpower flags? In a Psychology Today post McGonigal asserts that the following five “temptations” can actually be of use:

1. Reality Television—watch the kind that features people going after a goal. ‘Research shows that willpower can be contagious.’

2. A Snack. ‘One reason willpower runs out is because it’s energy-expensive. The brain uses more energy for self-control than for just about anything else. So if you’re running low on physical energy, you’ll be low in willpower energy.’

3. The Cute YouTube Video. ‘Research show that watching a humorous video restores depleted willpower and helps people get back on track with difficult tasks.’

4. An Afternoon Nap. Because sleep recharges your brain.

5. A Single Espresso. ‘Caffeine gets a bad rap, blamed for energy crashes and overcaffeinated jitters. But in its simplest form—straight up coffee or tea—and reasonable doses (depending on your own caffeine tolerance), caffeine can actually reduce stress.’

Oct 08

“The Marshmallow Test”: What’s the Real Lesson?

 Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught. Pamela Druckerman, New York Times, about The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel says the key to success is the patience to delay gratification. Oh…I want some delayed gratification now! Stephen Colbert

In advance of the publication of psychologist Walter Mischel‘s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the Pamela Druckerman has explained his central theme: We can overcome our childhood tendencies to go for the quick marshmallow (or alternative treat) rather than wait and get two.

In the legendary experiments that continue today but started back in the 1960’s, “(t)he children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults (and other kids) can learn this type of self-control too.

It’s all in the way our brains work, of course. In brief, the prefrontal cortex has to be called more into play.

It’s also in the making of if-then (or prior contingency) plans. How this applies to kids is explained by Mischel (Education Week):

…(W)ith practice, the desired action becomes triggered automatically when the ‘if’ cue occurs: If I have an assignment to complete, then I will turn off my text messages until I am done; if the dessert tray arrives then I will order the fruit salad; if I get angry then I will take a deep breath and count backward from 10 before I act; if I get teased at school, then I will pretend I don’t hear and walk away; if I am about to start daydreaming then I will look right at the teacher and pay attention. It’s simple but effective, and with practice can become routine.

Selected Quotes

Self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships.

What we do, and how well we control our attention in the service of our goals, becomes part of the environment that we help create and that in turn influences us. This mutual influence shapes who and what we become, from our physical and mental health to the quality and length of our life.

Who we are and what we become reflects the interplay of both genetic and environmental influences in an enormously complex choreography. It is time to put away the “How much?” question because it cannot be answered simply. As the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb noted long ago, it’s like asking, “What’s the more important determinant of a rectangle’s size: its length or its width?”