Thursday, April 30, 2015


A week ago I got to hear Roy Baumeister give an overview seminar on his research on self-regulation. Super fascinating stuff, and he's a great speaker. On a graphic of this data that I know I've seen online but I can't find for the life of me at the moment, showing how frequently people experience various types of desires, how much they try to resist them, and how often they succeed:
Not everyone who reports having a desire and does not try to resist it actually acts on the desire, of course. Sometimes the store is closed or the other person says no or you just don't have a gun.
Anyway, I don't know much about this field so I'm going to ignorantly speculate on some things I found intriguing. We hear more and more (directly due to Baumeister's research and popular book Willpower) that willpower is like a muscle - it gets depleted by using it too much in the short run, but you can also make it stronger by exercising it over time. But how perfect is this analogy? If we stop exercising our willpower for awhile, either by giving in all the time or by not encountering any tempting scenarios, does our willpower muscle atrophy?

The other relevant thing Roy mentioned is that, apparently, people with good willpower succeed by being good at avoiding temptation. This sounds very true to me. Not that I have particularly great willpower, but certainly in my experience the best way to change behavior is to manipulate the choice itself rather than to choose differently. I'm never going to be a person who goes running before work everyday, so I'm a member of a climbing gym and the campus pool and go hiking and such instead, because I inherently enjoy those things. I'm also strongly inclined to work from home, but because I know that it's good to maintain an in -person presence in the department, I schedule meetings on different days of the week so I don't have any choice but to go in. I get really good work done at night and hate both going to sleep and waking up, so instead of expending a ton of mental energy trying to make myself do something different and then feeling guilty for inevitably failing, I avoid morning commitments and take naps sometimes and sleep really late on weekends. It works out.*

So I wonder, when is Roy measuring willpower as "success in not engaging in harmful activities" or as "success in saying no to tempting activities when they are presented as options"? I interpreted him to mean that these things are correlated, but perhaps I misunderstood, or perhaps the data don't make a distinction. If the muscle analogy holds, and if the former definition of willpower is in fact often achieved through temptation avoidance, I would except the 2nd definition to be negatively correlated with the first. That is, if you get good at avoiding tempting scenarios, wouldn't your willpower muscle start to atrophy?

I briefly asked him about this after the talk and gathered that it's an open question whether the willpower muscle can atrophy with lack of use. I'd love to know the answer to that and the rest.

*Maybe these aren't good examples of what Roy is talking about though, because they don't involve routines or good habits, which are supposed to help mitigate temptation by removing choice from the equation. I'm too stubborn and FOMO-plagued and flow-exploiting to stick to routines...

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