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reason: If we live in this world where we’re surrounded by temptation and we’re forced to make decisions all the time—if all bets are off at 4 o’clock—doesn’t that suggest that we should turn to the state to have some of these difficult decisions taken away from us? Or at least have temptations moved back? Is the phenomenon that you’re documenting here an argument for having the nanny state control our environment?
Tierney: The problem is that part of self-control is setting long-term goals and deferring gratification. You have to do things for the future. But politicians have the shortest-term goals of all, which is either getting elected next year or winning this news cycle. So these are not the people that I want to trust to set realistic long-term goals. The history of nanny state interventions is really not very good. People point to seat belt laws, they point to smoking, but you know I think those things would have happened anyway, that people were turning that direction. And then you see so many failures: Attempts to improve people’s diets correlate with this increase in obesity. [The government tries to] recommend what people should eat. And the process gets corrupted because they have to please the cereal companies and grain farmers. Then it turns out that they’re wrong, and there are these experts who have gotten things wrong. So they’ve got this whole official food pyramid that turns out to be making people fatter. Yet they just keep going on.
Cigarette smoking, they got that right. But that was such an obvious and a fairly simple thing. Most of the good there was done simply by sponsoring research and telling people “here’s what the research is.” But when it comes to actually setting rules about what you can do and what you can’t do in far more complicated things, the track record is so bad.
reason: What is the marshmallow test?
Tierney: The marshmallow test was where 4-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. It would be set in front of them, and they would be told that they could eat it but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows. This was really just a study in deferred gratification, but quite by accident the researchers who did it happened to notice later that the kids who had managed to resist the marshmallow did much better in school, did much better in life. That’s what kicked off the modern self-control movement. Until then researchers hadn’t really been focusing on it much.
Then my co-author Roy Baumeister did these famous experiments with chocolate chip cookies and radishes. He was looking for the source of willpower. He [had subjects] resist a chocolate chip cookie for five minutes and instead eat radishes. Later he would give them a self-control test with this puzzle. [The radish eaters] would quit 10 minutes before someone else. It had this amazing effect. Then they found the source of this is glucose in the bloodstream.
He also developed this personality test.…Of the two dozen traits that he looked at, [self-control] was the only one that predicted success in school. It was actually even better than IQ at predicting success in school.
reason: Everyone is looking for the source of the recent financial crisis. Was the housing crisis caused by people eating the cookie? Is depletion of self-control related to these large-scale phenomena?
Tierney: There are two failures of self-control. There are the people who took out the loans without really thinking through, “Can I actually afford this in the future? Am I going to be making enough money?” They weren’t setting realistic goals, and they weren’t monitoring themselves. In the book we talk about how you can use Mint.com to do some of this work for you, but you have to be realistic about your future and think ahead.
But it’s also caused by politicians who wanted to appease their constituencies and say, “I’m all for affordable housing. I’m going to create affordable housing.” That’s a great short-term gratification for them, but they’re now looking at the long-term consequences.
reason: If self-control can be taught, who should do the teaching?
Tierney: Parents can teach this at an early age. It’s one of the reasons that successful parents tend to have successful kids. Because the parents have self-control, and it takes self-control to instill it. You’ve got to set clear goals for the child and then be consistent in rewarding their success and punishing failure. It doesn’t have to be a strict punishment, but it should be consistent. And that’s hard. As a parent I know that it’s much easier to let stuff slide. In the book I talk to the nanny of Nanny 911, and she really uses the techniques that Roy’s been studying.
reason: You could do what [Reason Foundation donor] Drew Carey, who figures prominently in your book, did. He hired a consultant, in fact the consultant on getting things done. Could you describe how that went down?
Tierney: Drew had read Getting Things Done, by David Allen, and he would try to implement this system called GTD, which a lot of people tried, and he was having mixed success. So he just thought, “I’m rich; I can do this.” So he hired David Allen to come once a month and sit at his desk and go through and clear his inbox. And it worked for him. It’s a great system, GTD; I use it myself. In fact Roy and I visited David Allen, and it’s an amazing experience. You go into his office, and there’s a totally clear desk. It’s amazing to see, and this is the guy who’s running this empire. His is the one self-help book that I found, the one new one, that really does work because instead of these vague goals about “begin with the end in mind” or this sort of platitude, it was “how do you get your inbox clear.”
[Roy’s] lab did experiments showing why this works. There’s this thing called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is that your mind, your unconscious tends to keep focusing on an uncompleted task. That’s what an earworm is. When you hear a song get cut off, your unconscious keeps on playing it because it’s not finished. What Roy found was that if you simply make a plan to deal with the uncompleted task, your unconscious will let you go and then you’re free.