Baumeister and Tierney begin by telling us that they “think that research into willpower and self-control is psychology’s best hope for contributing to human welfare. Willpower lets us change ourselves and our society in small and large ways.” One quells a nagging doubt: Who said Stalin and Hitler didn’t have willpower? Was that progress?
The book starts off promising. Baumeister is an experimental psychologist who, earlier in his career, bought into dominant 1990s fads. It later began to trouble him that most psychologists not only denied that willpower existed, but considered it would be a bad thing if it did exist. They associated self-control with oppressive Victorian culture.
Trouble was, as he recounts, their substitute virtue - self-esteem - was everywhere a flop. It produced a generation that felt very good about very minor achievements. Meanwhile, he noticed that, in lab experiments, people routinely exercised self-control - or didn’t. Thus evidence contradicted theory. Not only that, but when research subjects were followed up later, those who showed self-control, even as small children, achieved significantly more. So despite colleagues’ skepticism, he decided to study willpower and self-control, and the result is this book on how to maximize it. Along the way, he renewed popular interest in a strategy called “precommitment”, where one promises to abstain from a bad habit on pain of a financial penalty for proving unfaithful.
How effective are Baumeister’s (and Tierney’s) prescriptions likely to be? The point where the book starts to wobble downhill is the just-so story about how self-control and self-consciousness evolved from our prehuman ancestors’ need to be patient while the alpha male ate first. Our large brain, we are told, later led us to apply these strategies to other uses like “At a business lunch, you don’t have to consciously restrain yourself from eating meat off your boss’s plate” (p. 15).
No, but most sources would attribute that fact to a variety of immaterial factors that originate in the mind (courtesy, consideration, aesthetics, hygiene), not the belly. In a different culture, one might be expected to eat from the boss’s plate. In reality, context determines everything in these matters.
Baumeister and Tierney report on many psych lab experiments demonstrating self-control, followed by advice and virtuous examples. The advice, while not bad, is the quick fix of popular culture, despite the authors’ best efforts to dissociate themselves from all that: For example, we learn, don’t try to break three bad habits at once, don’t make New Year’s resolutions, don’t go on a diet. Control your glucose and your paperwork .... this is news?
It feels unsettling that our authors usually offer celebrities or oddballs, major or minor, as examples of success or failure. Not great saints, great artists, or great scientists. The resulting shallowness overwhelms the reader (well, this reader anyway). I do not really care how Hollywood Hot Stuff learns to tidy the office or slim down without dieting. I would like to know how Mother Theresa’s nuns, who work in my parish, live lives of privation -- and remain radiant.
Yet, page after page, I am drowning in trivia. Orderliness, I want to shout, is not an end in itself! The saints regarded it as an act of charity. Self-forgetfulness is not a trick! It is living one’s true vocation. Faith is not a strategy! It is an assent to fact.
Sure enough, the authors admit on page 170 that they are both agnostics, lapsed Christians. And their big project, they admit, is to show how we can be good without God. The trouble is, if their book is any guide, without God we become ... trivial!
Instead of asking, “Am I too focused on the pleasures of the table to hear God’s voice?” we ask “Have I put on weight?” Making clear by our preoccupation that the soul is nothing and the body is everything. That is why we diet when we should really fast.
The authors cite the benefits of religion in terms of longevity and better health, tossing off the fact (p. 182) that you must believe it in order to benefit. Which is exactly wrong. You should believe it if you think it is true. One side benefit might happen to be a longer, healthier life. But then again maybe not. Anyway, by p. 186, they’re back to thinking we can get the same benefits by riffing our future selves off our present selves.
Trouble is, our future selves don’t exist; we are only ever our present selves.
Baumeister and Tierney close on a less than inspiring note: In the past, people seeking self-control “outsourced the job to God,” but today many technologies can take God’s place. Even the authors must sense the falsity. But it’s a position they are stuck with.
One turns with relief to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Put simply, free will (or will power) grows with virtue: 1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” No one ever said that cultivating the good and the just for their own sake is easy, but that path leads us aright. All these tips and tricks to gain willpower lead into a phosphorescent marsh where we undergo the rigors of dieting without experiencing the joy of fasting. Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


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