Triumph of the Willpower

New York Times science writer John Tierney on what marshmallow-eating kids can teach us about political sex scandals, the financial crisis, replacing God with technology, and clearing out our inboxes


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.)

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. 

If you've got this big idea on your to-do list like "Do Taxes," well, you can't really do taxes in one step. What David Allen and GTD did was try to break everything down to a doable to-do list. I've started using it, and I have to say that I do have a pretty clear inbox, and it does free you up to write that way. And Drew said that the day that he got to zero [in his] inbox was just this moment of bliss. You can't believe what it's like to have nothing to do. It's not that everything is done, but everything is on a list to be planned, and you don't have to worry about it at that moment.

reason: Let's talk a little bit about self-control, or lack thereof, for debt and deficit spending by Congress. Obviously, the focus on the next election cycle is generally blamed, but is there a broader parallel between the individuals who have trouble staying out of debt in their own lives and what's happening on the national scale right now with this ever-expanding debt and deficit?

Tierney: Starting with the New Deal there's always been this idea that someone is going to take care of you, that I'm not ultimately responsible for my old age, that there's social injustice, and we're all our brother's keepers. Which is a very nice idea, except who's going to pay for it? People in their personal lives at least realize—I think this is one of the disconnects now with the Tea Party—people in their personal lives know very well that you can't keep spending money you don't have. And they've seen in their personal lives what happens when you buy a house that is now underwater. You're in trouble. So they look at the government and say, "You guys can't keep doing this either."

reason: You have a great line where you say that the people with the best self-control are the people who take themselves out of situations of temptation. You say of Ulysses lashing himself to the mast, that someone with real self-control would have just taken a different route home, which I really liked. Can you talk about how that works? And how we can sort out cause and effect? If you don't set yourself up for temptation, you're awfully good at resisting it.

Tierney: There are a couple of strategies. The Ulysses story is a good one because that's a classic example of what's called precommitment. He ties himself to the mast, the sailors have plugged their ears so they can't hear the Sirens [and be tempted to jump into the sea to their deaths]. Now that's one form of precommitment. But an even more extreme form of precommitment—and an easier one—would be just don't even sail by the Sirens in the first place. 

That's what they found in deeper studies recently when they ask people how they're exercising self-control and when they follow people, the people who have the best self-control use it least because they set up habits. So instead of waking up every day and thinking, "Am I going to jog this morning or not," they just set up appointments with friends, so they don't have to make a decision to do it. There's no energy, and your friend is helping to enforce [your goal]; you're outsourcing the self-control. So they're conserving self-control that way. They don't bring the junk food into the home. There have been some simple studies, some great studies showing that simply putting candy in a drawer at your desk saves you from eating it, vs. putting it out on the desk itself. If you put in on a book shelf across the room, that also helps you. Anything you can do not to stare at something, not to be faced with those temptations. Because just resisting that chocolate all day long at your desk, that depletes you, and at some point you're going to give in, or you'll do something stupid at work, or you'll get mad at your family.

reason: Talk about the evolution of the obsession with self-esteem and how it related to self-control. How did the self-esteem movement come about in the first place? Why was it picked up in public schools? And what went wrong?

Tierney: The self-esteem movement came out of this finding that there was a correlation between self-esteem and success. It was such an appealing idea that if you only improved people's self-esteem it would then make them more successful, because people who had self-esteem were successful. So people love this idea. It seemed to apply, and it was much easier to do that than to do hard work. It's much easier to kind of sit around in a circle telling each other how much they like each other and their greatest strengths.

Roy Baumeister, my co-author, was one of the leaders in that because it seemed very promising. Then when they actually started doing serious studies tracking people, they found that success predicted self-esteem; self-esteem did not predict success. You had self-esteem because you succeeded. But this went on for a long time anyway. And it really did hurt schooling, I think. There was all this concentration on feeling good. There have been these [studies] where U.S. math students perform pretty badly, but they felt great about themselves. That just doesn't really work very well in the workplace.

reason: What are the implications of your book for drug policy, if any?

Tierney: We need to strengthen the DEA [laughter]. 

reason: No, really. If people are so simple that just taking the candy off your desk and putting it on a shelf is effective, why isn't that an argument for saying, "Let's just control supply where we can. Let's make it a little bit harder to buy pot. Let's make it a little bit harder to buy heroin." Won't that reduce use?

Tierney: I don't have to tell reason readers that that's been a miserable failure, that it's easier than ever to get these drugs. And the fact is that we just cannot escape temptation. You can legislate casinos, but people can gamble online anytime they want. Temptations are always there. 

That's the reason, in the book, that we don't really think much about government solutions. Because these things cross borders. Temptations are everywhere. You have to somehow find ways yourself. There is certainly room for social support, and that's an important thing. Twelve-step groups work in part because of social support. People who go to churches—I'm not religious myself, but you can't deny the evidence that people who are religious have much better self-control, and they get that because of these rules.

We have a chapter talking about Eric Clapton and Mary Carr, how they beat alcoholism. Mary Carr was this not-at-all religious person who became religious as she quit drinking, and she found this idea of a higher power helped her. There's a thing that's called bright-line rules. You somehow reach a point when it comes to stopping smoking or something where you're just not going to do it anymore, and you know that your future self is not going to do it. When I quit smoking I did Nicorettes, and I know what that struggle is like. That's what somebody on drugs has to do; you have to reach that decision. There are ways you can do it with a self-help group, with a religious group, or some kind of personal change. But the government can't make you stop using drugs. They can't really take them away from you; only you can do that yourself.

reason: Toward the end of the book you discuss replacing God with technology for this purpose. In a country where we are less and less religious, how else can we get those good bright-line rules that God previously provided? 

Tierney: There's this movement called the quantified self, which is using digital tools for monitoring yourself—and basically outsourcing the monitoring. I weigh myself every morning on a Withings scale that sends it to my computer so I can see this chart, and just knowing that's going to be there is something that affects me a little bit. I wear a band on my arm that keeps track of how many steps I take, how much I sleep. I have this software that monitors my computer use. My finances are automatically monitored by Mint.com. Just knowing that you're going to get this email on Saturday, "Unusual spending on meals," that has an impact. That's basically a way someone else is helping you keep track of yourself.

reason: What output of your quantified self most shocked you or most changed your behavior? 

Tierney: I think the shocking thing for me was the amount of writing that I did. At one point I took leave and went off to write the book. I was spending 10, 12 hours a day writing and pretty much doing just that. I found that when I actually looked at what I was doing, and you could see the little graph, it was really hard to write for more than four or five hours a day. It's decision fatigue. I also realized that that's what writers have all day. It's a decision every word. What's the next word going to be? You can't keep doing that all day. 

I guess I got a little more realistic in that I used to always think, "Well, I'll do 2,000 words tomorrow. I'll finish it all tomorrow. I'll do it all tomorrow morning." The more I kept track, I could look back and say, "I've never written 2,000 words in a morning before, so maybe I shouldn't plan on that for tomorrow." It's something called the planning fallacy. Everybody thinks that they're going to get more done than they possibly could.

reason: What else should people know about self-control and willpower?

Tierney: The term willpower started being used by the Victorians. They had this notion that there was this energy, kind of like the steam engine, and what Roy has found is that there really is this energy there. The Victorians were also concerned because at that time people were leaving their villages, their churches, and moving into the cities. And there was nobody controlling them. The Victorians didn't instinctively look to the government to control everything for them. They wanted to be able to develop this inner fortitude, even as they were losing their religious faith, even though their neighbors in the village were no longer constraining them.

I think that we're in an era like that today with the Net, that we're suddenly subjected to temptations all the time with nobody looking over us, and there's this real temptation to say, "The government has to save us from this." I think that [if] we can encourage people to use their own self-control, they'll do a much better job of controlling themselves, and we won't have all these problems with the government [using] blunt instruments that restrict our freedom, because basically you need self-control to have freedom. 

I also think self-control and willpower got a terrible rap after the Nazis. The power of the will, that was not good P.R. It's associated with this idea of selfish people trying to get their own way. But the really heartening research [suggests] that self-control evolved [because it] enabled us to get along with other people. We're social creatures, and we need this in order to get along. People with self-control are actually more altruistic; they do more to help other people. So it's not just a selfish virtue; it's a social virtue too. We can actually develop ourselves without the nanny state doing it for us.