Are you an impulsive marshmallow eater? Your success—or failure—in life may depend on how you answer that question, says New York Times science writer John Tierney. He is the co-author, with Roy F. Baumeister, of the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin).
“The marshmallow test,” explains Tierney, was an experiment “where 4-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat it but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows.…The kids who managed to resist the marshmallow did much better in school, did much better in life. That’s what really kicked off the modern self-control movement.”
Drawing on groundbreaking research—including work done by Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University—the authors argue that willpower is like a muscle. It can be built up and toned through conditioning, and it can be overworked and strained through “decision fatigue.”
Eminently readable, Willpower mixes the latest developments in the study of the mind with helpful methods of self-control. Tierney and Baumeister shed light on issues ranging from the drug war to the housing bubble to workplace productivity. For video of this interview, go to reason.tv.
reason: Why write a book about willpower?
John Tierney: If you look at the traits that predict success in almost anything—in school, at work, in your family, staying out of jail—the two things are intelligence and self-control. Psychologists still haven’t figured out much to do about intelligence, but they have rediscovered how to improve self-control.
reason: You write about decision fatigue. I think we’ve probably all felt that. But can you describe what it is and how it works from a scientific perspective?
Tierney: Willpower—the popular idea is that it’s something that you use to resist temptation and to make yourself work. But they’ve also found that this same energy is used in making decisions, simply deciding what to have for lunch, what to do at a meeting; all these things deplete the same resource. After a while, when you’ve depleted this resource, it’s a state called ego depletion. You’ve got less self-control, you’re more prone to give in to temptation, it’s harder for you to work, and you tend to make worse decisions.
In this state of decision fatigue you’re looking for mental shortcuts, and sometimes you do something really impulsive because you just don’t think things through. You basically say, “Sure, I’ll tweet that photo of myself in my underwear; what could go wrong?” The other thing you can do is just defer decisions; you basically just duck them all day. Since I wrote the book and it was excerpted [in The New York Times], I’ve stopped trying to do anything important late in the day. And people at the Times magazine that ran an excerpt of this said, “You know, we’ve got to stop having meetings after 4 o’clock.”
reason: Since you brought up the esteemed Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his underwear tweeting brought on by decision fatigue, let’s talk a little bit about the implications of this idea in politics. Lately there’s been a lot of “never waste a crisis” legislating. When our legislators rush to do big things at the last minute, are we getting high-quality decisions?
Tierney: George [W.] Bush famously called himself “the decider,” and that’s what these guys do all day long: They make decisions. If you just keep doing that all day long, eventually you start making really bad ones and trying to make a lot of them and trying to make them late at night. It explains why someone like Eliot Spitzer, whom we write about in the book, someone that disciplined, that ambitious, [who] knew the laws [and] knew the risk…how does he get to be governor and then finally blow it? And there are probably lots of reasons in his psyche why he did that, but it’s just the fact he’s sitting there as governor making decisions all day long and then at night: “Sure, why not call the call girl? Why not transfer from my own bank account so it’s traceable?”
reason: Should we ban politicians from going on diets or quitting smoking while they’re in office?
Tierney: You know, Obama should not be trying to quit smoking while he’s in office [laughter]. Or at least he should be doing lots of Nicorette. One of the rules for New Year’s resolutions is do one of them, because trying to quit smoking, trying to diet, trying to make a decent decision about the health care bill, these things all draw on the same source of mental energy, and you can’t do it all at once. You need to figure out which one to focus on. Successful people are actually the ones who tend to minimize their choices. They focus on one thing and they set up their lives so they’re not constantly drawing on this same source.
(Interview continues below video.)