By the author of unsongbook.com

Book Review: Willpower

I.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney attracted me with the following pitch: there are only two quantities in psychology that have been robustly linked to a broad range of important life outcomes. One is IQ and isn’t changeable. The other is willpower and is easily changeable. Therefore, study willlpower.

I expected the book to center around Baumeister’s groundbreaking experiments in “ego depletion” – where people who are forced to expend willpower on one task have less willpower left over for future tasks – and “ego repletion”, where people who have been depleted of willpower get it back after taking some glucose. I’d been left kind of confused by competing claims about those studies and I hoped this book would fill out my knowledge of them and settle my confusion.

Instead, it spent a couple of chapters mentioning their existence and praising them as revolutionary, and then got deep enough into Pop Science Self=Help Book Mode to be almost a self-parody. Chapter three is called “The To-Do List From God To Drew Carey” and illustrates why to-do lists are a great idea with anecdotes from Drew Carey’s life and the Bible. Chapter four is the same but with Eliot Spitzer. Chapter six is David Blaine, Chapter seven is H.M. Stanley, Chapter eight is Eric Clapton, and Chapter ten is Oprah. All of these people apparently have important lessons about willpower to teach us, of which the interesting ones are:

– Willpower is a limited resource that is depleted by use and restored by glucose

– Having to make too many small decisions in a day causes “decision fatigue”, leading you to be exhausted and make bad decisions.

– Using willpower a lot strengthens your willpower, allowing you to be more effective.

– People with more willpower do much better in life; for example, in the famous “marshmallow test”, children who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for a few minutes in order to get two marshmallows had better life outcomes twenty years later.

– Careful quantification of goals, setting precommitments, and publicizing your success or failure to other people helps you stick to resolutions. (If you are wondering exactly how to do this, this might be a good time to mention there’s a new ad on the sidebar for Beeminder, a company that manages this for you with some neat evidence-based tricks.)

– Religious people have more willpower than non-religious people for some reason. But you have to believe if you want to get this benefit – you can’t just hang out at church and go through the motions in order to reap the willpower gains.

= Chinese-Americans do better than white Americans on willpower tests from toddlerhood toward adulthood. This is the most likely reason Chinese people outperform whites in the real world, and in fact although average white and Chinese IQ are pretty similar, Chinese people can break into “elite” professions at a lower IQ threshold than whites because their increased self-control compensates. The book admits this may be partly genetic, but also attributes some of it to Chinese parents teaching their children discipline and setting hard goals, which they contrast with white parents who tell their kids to “have fun” and “have high self-esteem” and “be self-directed”. Obviously in order to believe this result you’d have to believe parenting styles can affect children, which this book takes on faith but which is on shaky ground.

– Amount of self-control does not affect body weight (!) or success at dieting (!!) very much.

Overall there were some interesting findings in here, even if I found the pop sci tone a little bit over-the-top after a while.

II.

But I was disappointed. The reason I got this book is that there’s a big debate going on over “willpower”, “ego depletion”, and their younger cousins “growth mindset” and “grit”. All of these are slightly different constructs, but they’re all measures of stick-to-it-ness, and all of their proponents make grand claims about how small interventions to make people have them will bring those people success at school, work, and life. On the other hand, there are a lot of other people who think this whole area is a load of bunk.

For example, Mischel’s marshmallow test started all this off by “proving” that children who were able to delay gratification longest had higher SAT scores, higher parent-rated competence, and better coping skills. But now the test is under fire as people question whether it just shows that people from good environments learn to be more trusting and so more likely to believe the researcher’s promise of extra rewards for delayed gratification. Other people ask if it just shows that kids who are smart enough to think of good strategies to distract themselves are also smart enough to get good SAT scores and all of the other positive correlates of high IQ. Still other people point out the very low sample size, the reverse correlation in other subgroups, and an apparent failure to replicate. Mischel fires back in an Atlantic article where he says of course he took these things into account, that the test was done on a homogenous upper-class population.

This book just says the marshmallow test proves willpower is important, and leaves it at that.

Or how about the idea that glucose is the limited resource that willpower depletes? Robert Kurzban very correctly points out that the metabolic math doesn’t come close to adding up – we know how much glucose things in the body use, and these short little willpower tasks aren’t really going to affect blood glucose levels at all. Also, turns out that if you rinse your mouth out with a tasty glucose solution, you get just the same amount of ego replenishment even though none of the glucose actually entered your body. And for that matter, how come I can’t get infinite willpower just by snacking while I work? How come M&Ms don’t work as a poor man’s Adderall?

Kurzban goes further and says he doesn’t believe in willpower as a limited resource at all. He notes that even when you’ve stopped studying because you’re too ego-depleted and exhausted to make yourself go on any further, if I offer you a million dollars to study another hour then you’ll do it. Guess that resource wasn’t so depleted after all. He proposes a different model of willpower, where it’s your brain’s way of nagging you about the opportunity cost of your actions – “you’ve been studying three whole hours, don’t you think you could use that lobe of your brain for something else now?” But this strikes me as ridiculous – my brain is very concerned that it has better things to do than study, but is perfectly happy with me playing Civilization IV: Fall From Heaven forever or simply lying in bed doing nothing?

Finally, Carol Dweck finds that willpower is only depletable if you think it is, which sounds like exactly the sort of thing Carol Dweck would find. If Carol Dweck ever became an oncologist, we would have to revise all the medical textbooks to say that people only get cancer if they think they will.

There is a meta-analysis of about a hundred studies said Baumeister was basically right about everything. On the other hand, Baumeister’s theory failed what sounds like a formal replication. So it’s complicated.

I really want to know what willpower is. It seems like one of the big challenges of my life; I never have enough willpower for everything I want to do, and I’d at least like to have a theory of what I’m up against. This book did not give me enough information to navigate the controversy. Instead, it totally denied there was any controversy and spent chapter after chapter on cute pieces of trivia interspersed with stories about Drew Carey and Oprah.

III.

So let me end this with some thoughts that a good explanation of willpower should take into account.

First, mental willpower seems a lot like physical willpower – by which I mean our ability to push through exhaustion to keep exercising. Kurzban complains that willpower can’t be a limited resource, because even after it’s all depleted you can still force yourself to keep going for a big enough reward. But the same is true of exercise. I’ll get exhausted and stop running after a certain number of miles, but if you offer me $1 million to run another one I’ll probably make it. And the studies showing that rinsing your mouth out with glucose gives you the same willpower boost as actually drinking is identical to the results of similar studies measuring exercise duration.

So it’s probably worth asking what exactly causes exercise fatigue. This is less firmly known than I expected, but it seems to be a combination of decreasing levels of inputs (especially glycogen stores in the muscles), buildup of toxic metabolic waste (including heat, lactic acid, etc), and cellular damage. Exercise long enough and your muscles need time to replenish their stores, clear away waste, and repair themselves.

Second, mental willpower seems to do something a lot like budgeting. Money, despite being pretty much the classic example of a limited resource, shares some of the features of willpower that Kurzban mocks. A few days ago a pipe burst, my house flooded, and I may have to spend several thousand dollars unflooding it. This means I will have no money for the next forever and then some, and if you ask me to meet you at a fancy restaurant I’ll probably refuse on financial grounds. But if my mother is on her deathbed and her final wish is to see me one last time, I will find the money to get an expensive flight to California. How’s that any different from me not having enough willpower to keep studying until you offer me a million dollars to do so?

Likewise, if tomorrow my boss offers me a $5000 bonus to be handed out next month, I’ll probably relax my budgetary constraints and start buying myself nice things even before I get the paycheck. How’s that any different from the body reacting to sugar when it’s in the mouth but not the bloodstream?

Finally, the question that I as a psychiatrist find most interesting – how come drugs can change willpower so dramatically? The guy who can’t concentrate on a project for more than five minutes straight will pull a whole week of all-nighters when he’s on Adderall or modafinil. Those certainly aren’t increasing blood glucose, so what’s up?

The model that makes the most sense to me is of a stupid default system running on short-term reinforcement learning, plus an evolutionarily novel (and therefore poorly implemented) executive system that can overrule the default. The executive system’s overrule isn’t a simple veto, but a constant action, the same way holding your hand high in the air for a long period requires constant action by your muscles. This effort is metabolically costly in the same way that using muscles is metabolically costly, and so your body runs a general-purpose budgeting function on it that convinces you to turn it off before it overheats. Given enough incentive, you can let it overheat, but then it’s going to be damaged and need to repair itself for a few days before you can use it effectively again. This seems to fit all the evidence except the drugs, which I interpret as acting on the default system so that you don’t need to bring in the executive planner. I freely admit this is sort of cheating.

Overall I recommend Willpower if you want a quick and fun survey of a bunch of loosely connected psychology topics, but not if you want a deep and balanced exploration into the literature of anything.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

152 Responses to Book Review: Willpower

  1. Alex Godofsky says:

    For example, Mischel’s marshmallow test started all this off by “proving” that children who were able to delay gratification longest had higher SAT scores, higher parent-rated competence, and better coping skills. But now the test is under fire as people question whether it just shows that people from good environments learn to be more trusting and so more likely to believe the researcher’s promise of extra rewards for delayed gratification.

    I’m not sure there is a difference? One component of positive discount rates is the risk premium; more trusting people would therefore have lower discount rates that less trusting.

    Report comment

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      If you don’t think the researcher is going to give you the 2nd marshmallow, take what you’ve got and run.

      I’m reminded of one of those stupid “proving economics wrong” experiments that walks up to people in a mall and offers them $100 today or $102 tomorrow. They all take the first, even though a interest rate of 2%/day is amazing and everyone should take the latter.

      Except, if you are walking up to me in a mall, I am definitely going to take $100 from you right now, because you are standing here in front of me, and you probably think I’m a dupe because I couldn’t get away from you before you walked up to me in a mall. So gimme my money.

      (Shocking twist: it turns out they don’t actually have $100 bills on-hand to give to people.)

      Report comment

      • Anonymous says:

        Just the travel/opportunity costs of getting back to the mall to collect the $102 would make me opt for the first choice.

        Report comment

      • Salem says:

        The time-value portion of their experiment is equivalent to going up to a stranger who you knew had $100 and asking to borrow $100, promising to pay back $102 tomorrow. Everyone knows why you don’t lend the money.

        Report comment

        • DanielLC says:

          Not really. If someone offers to give you money now or later, they have no incentive to do either. If it’s a given that they’re willing to give you $100 for whatever reason, they’re much more trustworthy to give you $102 later.

          Report comment

          • kibber says:

            They do have an incentive, actually – the incentive of “keeping face”. Breaking someone’s trust immediately, when they’re facing you, is much harder then doing it later and impersonally (by not showing up and/or coming up with a plausible enough excuse). The subjects are correctly discounting the $102 based on that information.

            Report comment

      • Deiseach says:

        (1) By cracky, if glucose gave you willpower, then with my familial sweet tooth, I should be giving Friedrich Nietzsche a run for his money in the will department! I’m here to say that you probably need strong will in the first place. And to be frank, that sounds more like “Getting tired and cranky and a quick burst of sugar gives you more energy” rather than “glucose restores willpower!”

        (2) Edward, you mean strange men walking up to me and promising to give me $100 for nothing aren’t on the level? I’m shocked, shocked! 🙂 And again, if I can’t trust them to give me $100 today, how am I supposed to trust them to give me $102 tomorrow?

        (3) – Amount of self-control does not affect body weight (!) or success at dieting (!!) very much.

        If you’re stuffing your face with glucose to replete your depleted willpower, I’m not surprised you might have trouble losing weight and indeed find you are putting extra on – “Hmm, I find it tough to stick to my diet and exercise regime. Obviously, I need to up my willpower. Pass me that bottle of Lucozade!”

        (Lucozade, in case you are unaware, is nothing but pure effin’ sugar water with some caffeine and a lot of colouring).

        Report comment

        • Randy M says:

          But, given that by definition if you are gaining weight you are taking in more glucose (or equivalent) than used up, it would seem the existence of people on diets pretty conclusively disproves that hypothesis.

          Report comment

      • Troy says:

        Wouldn’t the rational thing to do be to wait the 15 minutes, and then if the second marshmallow doesn’t appear you could eat the first marshmallow then? Unless you’re worried the experimenter will take it away you’re not losing anything.

        Report comment

        • Nita says:

          We’re talking about kids here. From their perspective, of course the adult (or some other adult, or even another kid) might take things from you for no apparent reason.

          Report comment

        • RCF says:

          Spending 15 minutes staring at a marshmallow and not eating it produces distress. If one doesn’t get another marshmallow out of it, then one is, in fact, losing something.

          Report comment

  2. Anthony says:

    Is “willpower” substantially the same as “Conscientiousness” in the OCEAN or HEXACO personality models?

    Does the book get into heritability of “willpower” at all?

    Report comment

    • I am not sure how substantially the same they are, but there seems to be considerable evidence linking both conscientiousness and agreeableness with effortful self-control, which seems to be similar to the concept of will-power. Conscientiousness is related to behavior that might in general be considered “work”, while agreeableness is related to the ability to inhibit the expression of anger and aggressiveness. Being “nice” can seem like “work” when dealing with trying people!

      Report comment

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Could you point to the evidence linking agreeableness to self-control? That is the opposite of my understanding of agreeableness, in either OCEAN or HEXACO.

        Report comment

  3. Salem says:

    I don’t understand your objection to Kurzban’s thesis. Why shouldn’t it be that your brain intuits lying in bed to be a very high-reward activity (and so bugs you less about the opportunity cost) but studying to be a very low-reward activity? Seems exceedingly plausible to me.

    I also question your analogy between willpower, exercise and money. If you run for 3 hours, then I pay you a million dollars to run one hour more, you’ll do it, but you’ll be even more exhausted at the end, and you won’t be able to run as fast as in hour 1. If your mother is on her deathbed, you’ll scrounge the money to visit her, but you’ll now be even poorer, and have to have austerity for even longer. But if I pay you a million dollars to study one more hour, not only will you do it, but you will be able to study with even more concentration than in the first hour, and at the end your willpower will be as strong as ever – you’ll be fully prepared to fill in any amount of complicated paperwork you need to complete the transaction. Frankly it looks like this was never a “depleted resource” it’s just that before your reptilian brain was telling you “this is a low-reward activity” whereas now your reptilian brain is telling you “this is top priority.”

    Report comment

    • PGD says:

      Exactly. But another way to put it is that what was being depleted was your ability to force yourself to do a low-reward or actively distasteful activity. When you are promised a million dollars it stops being a low-reward activity, hence no more depletion. On the exercise analogy, being offered a million dollars is less like being asked to run another hour than it is an offer to carry you for a carriage for another hour.

      Report comment

    • Godzillarissa says:

      On the other hand, if you give me 1 million bucks to study another hour, I will still be even more brain-fried after that hour and I will need more time to recover. And if you do this every day, I’ll get a burn-out sooner or later.

      So the fact that my reptilian brain is telling me “this is top priority” just masks that effect, which it also does in respect to bodily exhaustion and money.
      For example, the vacation-high masks the bad feelings about the credit I took.
      Also, the feeling of crossing the marathon finish line masks the exhaustion of four hours of running.

      I do not see any differences between the three, equal incentives provided.

      Report comment

    • Svejk says:

      Kurzban’s thesis modified by Scott’s two-tiered model would seem to imply that perceived personality traits like ‘sloth/industry’ are partially correlated with different incentive structures. People that can leverage their personal gifts and economic and social capital into relatively greater rewards may be more motivated to exert themselves at a level that less gifted or connected individuals would consider an unnecessary energy expenditure. It’s as if one person is being asked to run a 6 minute mile for a reward of $10K, while another would receive only $10.

      Report comment

    • Tracy W says:

      But if I pay you a million dollars to study one more hour, not only will you do it, but you will be able to study with even more concentration than in the first hour, and at the end your willpower will be as strong as ever – you’ll be fully prepared to fill in any amount of complicated paperwork you need to complete the transaction.

      Cite?
      (Note, I am willing to be the test subject in the “paid one million dollars for one hour’s study” experiment.)

      Report comment

    • Deiseach says:

      It depends how capable you are of continuing to study at the same level after three hours. There have been times when I’ve been saturated; when there was no point in continuing because I was not taking in new information or retaining it. Offering me a milliion dollars to conintue for another hour might encourage me to grit my teeth and force myself to keep going, but I can pretty much assure you that I would get little or no benefit from the extra hour of study (apart from the money). Certainly not if the point of the inducement was to make me learn more or encourage better study habits.

      Report comment

    • Mary says:

      “But if I pay you a million dollars to study one more hour, not only will you do it, but you will be able to study with even more concentration than in the first hour,”

      Methinks you have never studied to exhaustion.

      I have worked on after ten hours. This is always a mistake because I spend more time, the next morning, fixing the problems I made in that time, than would have been needed to do all the productive work I did.

      Report comment

    • cypher says:

      No, actually, I won’t. But I have ADHD, so I may be atypical. The one million dollars wouldn’t feel real to me.

      Report comment

    • naath says:

      How do you know that? Have you ever offered anyone a large reward for spending “just one more hour” studying (after they have already reached their “I need to do something else now” point)? What happens?

      I can imagine that in some circumstances I’d cheerfully take your money and press on with the studying and it would work about as well as any studying, but in other circumstances it wouldn’t work at all – for instance I know from direct experience that I rapidly loose cognitive abilities when sleep deprived, after 24 hours awake I’d be about as effective at studying as I would be if I’d just drunk a bottle of wine (just say no), after 48 hours I’m not sure I could even keep my eyes open.

      The same with running – if you offer me a big reward to keep going just a little bit further than I want to (perhaps I’m bored, or am thinking “those dishes need doing, I can’t do this all day”); but there’s no reward in the world that will keep me running after I fall over from exhaustion/pain/heart attack/etc.

      Report comment

  4. Roman says:

    I wonder about the religious thing. What were they measuring? If it was church attendance, I suspect anyone that consistently attended a place that there was no or weak social pressure to go every week would have stronger will power purely on the virtue that consistently going is a demonstration of will power.

    Report comment

  5. Justin says:

    fyi you may want to read up on Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Model of physical fatigue.

    Report comment

    • Ray says:

      yes, this is what I thought of immediately.
      Fatigue in long distance races is not caused by depletion of muscle glycogen or build up of waste products (though they have their effects) but depletion of glycogen levels in the liver. So there is enough energy to supply the muscles, but the reservoir of energy available to the brain is reducing, and the brain tells the muscles to stop working so hard. Sometimes the athlete can overrule this mechanism, for a while.

      Report comment

  6. Daniel Armak says:

    Given enough incentive, you can let it overheat, but then it’s going to be damaged and need to repair itself for a few days before you can use it effectively again.

    But do the experiments show that if you overheat it by offering (and then giving) a big incentive, it will function less well later? I would predict the opposite: that it would function better for a time in the hope of getting another big incentive.

    Report comment

  7. Rob says:

    In additon to that of Kurzban and co-authors of the opportunity cost model of self-control, the work of Michael Inzlicht and colleagues on their affect alarm model is another leading alternative theory to the limited resource model worth checking out (Google Inzlicht for his lab):

    http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/02/Inzlicht-Schmeichel-Macrae-2014.pdf

    This also is a good review:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12139/abstract

    Report comment

  8. jm says:

    Are you sure that drugs like modafinil and adderall don’t lead to some ego depletion, too? I’m in the middle of midterms week and I drank a lot of red bull a few days ago during a multi-day studying binge, and now feel really drained and just lie in bed staring at the ceiling — despite having two midterms this afternoon.

    Report comment

    • Anonymous says:

      “Ego depletion”? What does that even mean in this context?

      Sounds like you’re just TIRED, as any person should be after what you’ve described. Nothing to do with ego depletion/willpower.

      Report comment

  9. TeMPOraL says:

    Precommitments scare me. Last time I tried them, to motivate myself to work and study, I ended up living half a year in extreme fear and stress, being completely unproductive and losing a lot of money to Beeminder. Deep inside I felt that I’m trying to trick myself into working and my willpower refused to cooperate. After losing money to a first failed precommitment, the stress came – I’m not very well off and here I am suddenly losing money on work instead of earning it. So my quest for better mind hacks continues.

    I know that YMMV, but I’m sharing this as a data point on how a varied mileage can look like.

    Report comment

    • Hey TeMPOraL, highly valuable anecdote and I’m so sorry to hear that. Here are our thoughts on how to beat Beeminder burnout, as we call it: http://blog.beeminder.com/burnout . Very interested to hear if that would work or if precommitments just don’t jibe with your personality.

      I should also mention that we’re extremely averse to people paying money to Beeminder that they don’t feel was worth it (gratifyingly it’s *almost* universally the opposite) and if you just reply to the legit check to explain then we’ll just cancel the charge. (There’s also a “weaselproof me” box you can check if it sounds like that would defeat the whole point. :))

      Report comment

    • k benton says:

      My results were similar, though all told I only lost something like $60 over several months, and that doesn’t represent a serious material impact, it had a disproportionate effect on my mental state. That effect was not motivation.

      Rather, as you say, I was all the more anxious, hated myself far more when I missed the mark and cost myself money in addition to failing to meet the habit goal, and ultimately resorted to giving up on certain things so I wouldn’t have to deal with those stressors.

      Meanwhile, several other habits I already had, and input more or less just to track or maybe improve a little bit, chugged along happily, because, well, I was already doing them, or close enough that my ethics allowed me to fudge it on occasion.

      I wanted it to work, but it’s really just negative reinforcement, which is pretty ineffective for me, and of which I already get more than enough of from my own asshole brain as it is.

      None of which, I want to say, should discourage anyone from trying it out… people are very different. I believe I’m not well suited to this form of brain hack. I speculate that it is, in part, because I am ultimately the source of my own punishment for missing the marks, but who knows…

      Report comment

      • Could a mental reframing fix the negative impact Beeminder had (anxiety, stress)? Namely, if you value beeminding things you don’t *need* to beemind, for the graphs and data, and you averaged something like $10/month in derailments, maybe that’s actually a reasonable fee and can be emotionally associated with paying for a service rather than punishment for failing to follow through on commitments.

        I should also repeat the advice from the post I linked TeMPOraL to, about beeminding very conservatively so there’s little risk of derailing unless egregious akrasia is at work. Of course for many people stress is the whole point. If you’re severely akratic then then it sucks to be beeminded but not as much as it sucks to, say, waste money on a gym membership you never use, or make zero progress learning new skills that have a critical long-term career impact because you’re in a perpetual state of “one more day doesn’t matter”. (Basically, if you’re deadline-driven then Beeminder’s a way to have a tiny but hard deadline for an epsilon of progress every day.)

        In your case though what I’m most curious about is if it was Beeminder that led you to the insight that negative reinforcement is ineffective for you (and your interesting point that it could have to do with you be self-punishing). Or was it predictable but you wanted to be sure?

        (Really appreciate this feedback, everyone!)

        Report comment

    • Doug S. says:

      I have this problem too. If there’s something I don’t want to do, making the consequences of not doing it worse seems counterproductive. Given the choice between not doing my homework, or not doing my homework and losing $50, I’d rather not lose the $50.

      “Do something bad so as to avoid something even worse” almost never manages to successfully motivate me. I just curl up into a ball and accept that the “even worse” is inevitable…

      Report comment

      • ddreytes says:

        IA

        Just my subjective experience, obviously, but I think that most of my procrastination doesn’t stem from a lack of motivation or from improperly valuing the benefits of doing unpleasant work now; it comes from me feeling anxiety / fear / shame about some project or task and so doing my best to avoid it. So, yeah, increasing the negative consequences of failure would, for me, greatly increase the incentive to procrastinate and make things way worse.

        On the other hand, I started taking anti-depressants ~ 7 months ago and I’ve found that, as my general levels of anxiety have decreased, I have become less bad about procrastinating. It’s still something I have trouble with but it’s also definitely improved.

        Report comment

        • Gudamor says:

          My form of procrastination is not that I don’t do things, it’s that I do things last minute. This works fine until some unforeseen circumstance means it doesn’t.

          Combating this would not be by making the negative consequences worse, but by making them SOONER.

          This, combined with breaking the tasks into chunks that I must demonstrate progress on, seems like it will work well on the specific form of procrastination I suffer from.

          Report comment

          • I think this is your point but in case it’s not clear to others: More fundamental to Beeminder than magnifying negative consequences is, exactly as you say, bringing the negative consequences SOONER. You have to have your datapoints on Beeminder’s yellow brick road every day, making slow but steady measurable progress.

            That’s in fact Beeminder’s key difference from all the other commitment device apps we know of, which we list here, btw: http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors

            Report comment

    • You (and others who don’t like the Beeminder approach) might like Habit RPG, which “gamifies” your life in the most literal possible way. I like it quite a bit (I’m currently at level 86), and it’s made a big difference in my ability to get projects done on time.

      Report comment

    • Medivh says:

      I am fairly sure I would suffer the same, were I to use Beeminder. Just thinking about Beeminder is causing stress.

      There are several problems to the Beeminder principle:

      1) Pain Brain vs Gain Brain: The fear of failure engages the pain Brain, causing you to flee from the task. If you need to get things done, you want to engage the gain Brain instead.

      Though, I suspect this effect depends heavily on whether a person is naturally successful vs naturally struggling. A naturally successful can probably take some punishment and still be in gain brain mode, while a naturally struggling will be kicked into pain brain mode.
      I guess this differece explains why some people get good results from Beeminder, while others hate it.

      see Pj Eby for details:
      http://lesswrong.com/lw/21r/pain_and_gain_motivation/

      http://dirtsimple.org/2009/03/stumbling-on-success.html

      2) Goals vs Systems:

      quote from Scott Adams (“How to loose nearly everytime and still win big”):
      “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. Thats literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal- if you reach it at all- feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal- oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure. […] Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement each turn. The systems people feel good each time they apply their system. […] In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system.”

      For me, the systems approach has been working miracles in cases of mild akrasia, and it makes programming so much more fun. Before, I would set as a goal to implement some feature, and get frustrated whenever things turned out to be more complicated and take more time than initially expected. Now, using the systems approach I set a clock and just do whatever I get done in the time. The result is that I am really relaxed, and even doing menial stuff like fixing minor bugs feels like success and fun.

      3) Forcing yourself to solve one problem will often lead you to neglect other important stuff, or make you solve the problem in a way that fits the definition that you have commited to, but does not achieve the goal you had in mind.
      http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2012/12/consider-not-setting-goals-in.html

      Report comment

      • 1) I accept that criticism. I think Beeminder might indeed be neglecting people who have the pain brain reaction.

        2) Exactly! Beeminder is absolutely in the systems camp (keep all your datapoints on this “yellow brick road” indefinitely) and it’s unfortunate that we use the term “goal” so much. I often say “graph” instead. I agree with Scott Adams’s point that goals as commonly conceived are for losers. But his criticism doesn’t apply to S.M.A.R.T.(E.R.) goals, as Katja Grace explains: http://blog.beeminder.com/smart

        Your systems approach mindset actually sounds beautifully aligned with Beeminder.

        3) Beemind all the things! (Or, more realistically, as I’ve said in other comments here, beemind things very conservatively, focusing on fixing egregious instances of akrasia.)

        Finally, the article you link to about, basically, the value alignment problem for goal setting is really good but I believe that goals one sets for oneself are reasonably immune to that criticism. Sometimes people define elaborate fine print for themselves but mostly it seems to be unnecessary. You may even purposefully leave huge loopholes (like “I will touch the door of my gym 3 times per week”) because you know yourself and what loopholes you’ll tend to abuse (like you may know that once you arrive at the gym you’ll have no trouble going in and actually working out).

        Report comment

    • Seems to me like you’re shooting the messenger. Beeminder is giving you a smack upside the head saying either you really don’t want that goal (even if it seems nice) or that the current methods you’re using to get to that goal just aren’t effective.

      Report comment

  10. Craig Gidney says:

    > The model that makes the most sense to me is of a stupid default system running on short-term reinforcement learning, plus an […] executive system that can overrule the default. The executive system’s overrule isn’t a simple veto, but a constant action, […] and so your body runs a general-purpose budgeting function on it that convinces you to turn it off before it overheats.

    Alternatively, leaving the override on may make you too prone to over-focusing on one task while everything else falls apart around you. In that case the shutoff could be algorithmically motivated instead of energetically motivated.

    Report comment

  11. Sigivald says:

    The most important takeaway is the existence of Civ 4: FFH, which I had been unaware of.

    Priorities, you know.

    Report comment

  12. Muga Sofer says:

    There seem to be a few typos where “-” has been replaced with “=”, FYI.

    Report comment

  13. Error says:

    But if my mother is on her deathbed and her final wish is to see me one last time, I will find the money to get an expensive flight to California.

    This reminds me of this post; in particular, the patient who could come up with ~$250 a week for heroin, but not $100 a week for anti-addiction drugs.

    Report comment

  14. Baby Beluga says:

    How bad of an idea is it to take modafinil or Adderall, anyway? Does anyone know?

    Report comment

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      My opinion is that taking modafinil is likely to be a good idea. Taking Adderral is alot more dangerous since adderral is an amphetamine so very illegal.

      Report comment

    • cypher says:

      It’s an amphetamine salt mix. It’s probably not as bad as taking heroin, meth, cocaine, or the like, but amphetamines can have some pretty serious side effects. I hear the effects may be worse for those without ADHD. There may also be a risk of damaging your motivational system itself.

      (Not a doctor. Not medical advice.)

      Report comment

  15. Luke Muehlhauser says:

    After reading a bunch of Dweck and Baumeister, I’ll just briefly comment (with no detailed support) that I was not left with the impression that I should trust the quality of their research or the stories they tell about their research.

    I think there’s something worth calling “growth mindset” and “willpower,” and they’re probably both manipulable in many (and perhaps most) people, but Dweck and Baumeister haven’t demonstrated much of anything about those constructs — t least, not to my satisfaction.

    Report comment

  16. suntzuanime says:

    He proposes a different model of willpower, where it’s your brain’s way of nagging you about the opportunity cost of your actions – “you’ve been studying three whole hours, don’t you think you could use that lobe of your brain for something else now?” But this strikes me as ridiculous – my brain is very concerned that it has better things to do than study, but is perfectly happy with me playing Civilization IV: Fall From Heaven forever or simply lying in bed doing nothing?

    I find that, unless I’m pretty tired, it takes willpower to just lie in bed doing nothing. I understand that medicine is a demanding profession, so perhaps you’re just pretty tired all the time? That would explain why your brain thinks it’s a good idea for you to take a break sometimes and does not argue with you.

    Videogames are specifically designed to trick you into thinking they’re novel and productive – they’ve been optimized to bypass the safety valves that keep you from wasting your time. Any videogame that didn’t do this would not get played, you would get sick of it and stop. There’s a reason why one of the most common positive adjectives used in videogame reviews is “addictive” – the job of a videogame is to hijack your brain.

    Report comment

    • Justin91 says:

      More generally, video games are one example of superstimuli. They give your brain’s reward centers an evolutionary novel jolt of dopamine that most people cannot easily cope with. Superstimuli are everywhere in the modern world.

      Fruit – normal stimulus
      Oreos – superstimulus

      the hottest girl, without makeup or airbrushing, in your village of 150 – normal stimulus
      the girls you see on the internet – superstimulus

      skipping rocks on the pond – normal stimulus
      Call of Duty – super stimulus

      Things that are extremely pleasant can be bad. Things that are extremely unpleasant can be good. This is called hormesis.

      exercise – unpleasant and damages your muscle fibers but makes you fitter
      cold exposure – unpleasant but upregulates brown fat and immune response

      I’m just a grumpy old conservative, but I am constantly mystified that people don’t seem to care about how degenerate the modern world can be. Or maybe Nietzsche was just right. There is a small few who’s brains have a natural sense of impulse control as well as a will to power, and they are destined to rule over the masses.

      Report comment

      • It seems clear to me that the kind of conservative who cares about degenerate us completely oytviyed by the kind who cares about the freedom of one version to sell a video game, and another to play it.

        > I’m just a grumpy old conservative

        Is 91 your age or your DOB?

        Report comment

      • Nonnamous says:

        Also,

        decomposing naturally existing sounds into harmonics (which I’m told is part of how the brain understands speech) – stimulus

        decomposing music into harmonics – superstimulus

        precise thinking as needed for everyday life and social interactions – stimulus

        doing math – superstimulus

        endorphins released after exercise – stimulus

        heroin – superstimulus

        Report comment

  17. Douglas Knight says:

    We need a meta-analysis of reviews. How do you find a review that gives balanced treatment of a controversial area? How do you find a review that admits the existence of controversy? If that more or less likely if the author is on one side? Is that more or less likely if the review is aimed at a popular audience?

    Report comment

    • “How do you find a review that gives balanced treatment of a controversial area? ”

      This is a more general issue than just the case of reviews. One of the important intellectual skills is the ability to evaluate sources of information on internal evidence. Our schooling system not only doesn’t teach that, it anti-teaches it, since the usual context is one where you have two sources of authority (teacher and textbook) and are supposed to believe what they tell you.

      Report comment

  18. Jake says:

    This might be a little off-topic, but I’m always confused by the idea Scott mentioned that parenting style wouldn’t make a difference on something that can actually be altered (like willpower). Does this mean if parents did nothing to teach their children work-ethic, values, discipline, etc, and basically just set the table every night and drove them to school the next day, then the kids would turn out the same as if the parents had worked to instill those values, reward stick-to-it-ness and punished not getting work done on time? There may in fact be studies that suggest this, but those sound a lot like the studies mentioned in this post arguing one time management class will revolutionize someone’s life (i.e. bullshit.)

    Report comment

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You are trying too hard to reconcile the body of literature. Usually the answer is that some of it is just wrong.

      And forget the general claim: the marshmallow test itself is direct evidence that willpower specifically is not altered (within the existing diversity of parenting styles). Yes, it is possible to reconcile it with the body of literature on short-term interventions on willpower, but the way to bet is that one side or the other is just wrong. Or both. And the fact that people barely notice the contradiction is pretty damning of the whole field.

      Report comment

      • Kelp Buddha says:

        “… the marshmallow test is direct evidence that willpower specifically is not altered (within the existing diversity of parenting styles)…”

        How is that the case? All it says is that willpower at a young age is correlated with success later in life. This could be explained entirely by parenting styles if you assume that the willpower at a young age was also affected by parenting styles.

        Report comment

    • PGD says:

      I always felt the ‘parenting doesn’t matter’ argument is ridiculous on its face. If research shows anything it is going to be that ‘normal’ variance within parenting styles in one particular culture does not impact easily measurable outcomes. There can be lots of reasons for that which are not driven by environment being unimportant — e.g. that the culture has arranged things so that there are a lot of environmental influences outside the home, that differences between home environments are not that radical for the majority of the population, etc. The claim that parenting and environment just don’t matter in an absolute sense is absurd on a common sense basis.

      Report comment

      • Tracy W says:

        The “parenting doesn’t matter” is the headline journalists write. It annoys Judith Harris greatly. Her claim is nearly exactly the same as yours: that ‘normal’ variance in parenting styles in a particular culture doesn’t impact outcomes.

        Report comment

      • Unique Identifier says:

        I don’t have the citation, but as I understood Steven Pinker, actively teaching your children language is pointless – they figure it out just fine without explicit instruction.

        He also mentions how deaf children, when brought together in sufficiently large groups, will spontaneously invent a full-fledged sign language without instruction. This is not a gradual process – it takes no longer than for these children to grow up.

        This was of course focused on language in particular, and I haven’t checked the sources as meticulously as I ought to.

        Edit: Scrounged up a relevant paragraph:
        What first attracted me to Harris’s theory was its ability to explain a {391} half-dozen puzzling facts in the part of psychology I work in the most, language.51 Psycholinguists argue a lot about heredity and environment, but they all equate “the environment” with “parents.” But many phenomena of children’s language development just don’t fit that equation. In traditional cultures, mothers don’t say much to their children until they are old enough to hold up their end of the conversation; the children pick up language from other children. People’s accents almost always resemble the accents of their childhood peers, not the accents of their parents. Children of immigrants acquire the language of their adopted homeland perfectly, without a foreign accent, as long as they have access to native speaking peers. They then try to force their parents to switch to the new language, and if they succeed, they may forget the mother tongue entirely. The same is true of hearing children of deaf parents, who learn the spoken language of their community without a hitch. Children thrown together without a common language from the grownups will quickly invent \ one; that is how creole languages, and the signed languages of the deaf, came into being. Now, a particular language like English or Japanese (as opposed to the instinct for language in general) is an example of learned social behavior par excellence. If children cultivate a fine ear for the nuances of their peers’ speech, and if they cast their lot with their peers’ language over their parents’, it suggests that their social antennae are aimed peerward.

        Report comment

        • Svejk says:

          The language-based argument for the importance of peer effects interests me, because I have encountered a number of exceptions to the general pattern that peer accents take precedence, and they share certain commonalities. In my anecdotal sample of first-gen child immigrants, and children of immigrants from a variety of continental/ethnic backgrounds whose parents’ language is heavily accented and many of whom speak a different language in the home, I’ve noticed that the home-country accent tends to persist longer (in at least one case indefinitely) in children whom I perceive to be more introverted and exhibit more of what I would naively call | filial piety |. I have not observed any correlations with number of siblings, birth order, age, age of immigration, articulateness/school performance, social status/social facility. I don’t recall Harris’ book discussing introversion or deference to a authority as a significant factors in determining the relevant environment, and the most likely explanation is that my limited number of observations are just outliers. Are there any good arguments for possible heterogeneity in ‘susceptibility to parenting’ ?

          Report comment

          • Tracy W says:

            From memory she mentions that autistic kids may be an exception.

            Report comment

          • Jaskologist says:

            I think language effects are a uniquely bad area to study when trying to tease out parental vs peer influences. We would expect language to be much more heavily influenced by your peers than other things, since the whole purpose of language is to communicate with those around you. There are reasons to believe that our brains treat language differently from everything else, because there are reasons it should do so.

            Report comment

          • Tracy W says:

            Jaskologist: we’re social animals. Everything about cultural behaviour should be influenced by our peers, since cooperating with, or fleecing, are how humans survive, our peers don’t have the genetic reasons to favour us that our parents do, and if you make it to puberty (as all our ancestors did) you’re quite likely to outlive your parents.

            Report comment

          • I believe Harris mentions the special case where the family is the peer group. I think that describes my situation—my age peers felt much more alien than my family. It’s also a possible consequence of home schooling, hence an argument both for and against it.

            Report comment

    • Tracy W says:

      Does this mean if parents did nothing to teach their children work-ethic, values, discipline, etc, and basically just set the table every night and drove them to school the next day, then the kids would turn out the same as if the parents had worked to instill those values, reward stick-to-it-ness and punished not getting work done on time?

      Sounds about right.

      There may in fact be studies that suggest this, but those sound a lot like the studies mentioned in this post arguing one time management class will revolutionize someone’s life (i.e. bullshit.)

      Until you know a few people who were adopted into a very different family from their biological family. At which point it starts to sound a lot more plausible.

      Report comment

  19. Nate says:

    What if the marshmallow test result is because kids who have low enough interest in marshmallows to resist the immediate marshmallow end up eating less sugar, and sugar just fucks you all up?

    Report comment

  20. Kelp Buddha says:

    For what it’s worth the model of willpower having to do with checking opportunity costs of alternate actions matches my subjective experience very well. The sensation of depletion seems to come from getting tired after fighting with yourself to stay on track. This suggests that there’s not so much a willpower resource at play but perhaps that there’s collateral damage from internal strife.

    Or alternatively, getting exhausted is a general strategy that works for convincing your body to stop doing physical activity, so your brain employs that strategy to force you to cease action decision behavior even if there is no physical behavior. The glucose would be explained if this mechanism for this response was triggered by tasting the glucose- which makes sense for the reasons Scott gave in exercise.

    I find this analysis especially interesting having read Ezequiel Morsella’s paper on Supramodular Interaction Theory, in which he proposes that consciousness arose as an evolutionary solution to competing plans of action. The only states of which you are necessarily conscious are those that involve explicitly overriding “instinctual” actions. The main example he gives of this is holding a really hot plate. You can decide to carry it across the kitchen instead of dropping it, but even when you make that decision you don’t become unconscious of the hot plate. In many other decision scenarios, you do stop being conscious of other possible decisions. (BTW, this paper is worth reading even if you disagree with his conclusion since it gives a great argument against the idea that information integration is the key to consciousness.)

    Report comment

    • Paul Torek says:

      That was an awesome paper; thanks for the reference. Morsella gets the critical point correct, that phenomenal states can play a crucial role in particular behaviors of particular organisms, without being necessary from a design perspective if one were to design an organism from scratch. Lately quite a few thinkers are getting this, but only lately, and still not enough.

      Report comment

  21. John Schilling says:

    …if I offer you a million dollars to study another hour then you’ll do it

    Actually do it, or spend another hour staring at a textbook and being distracted by dreams of what I will do with a million dollars?

    But if we’re satisfied with thought experiments, I’ll add another. When I am flying an airplane, I will plan on landing at or before the point where fuel gauges show one hour of flying time remaining. If you offer me a million dollars (and I trust you and there are no other risk factors on the table) I will almost certainly keep flying for another hour. Does this mean that the fuel in a fifty-gallon tank is not a limited resource?

    Fuel, and I suspect also willpower, are limited resources that real people will never use to exhaustion save to escape a life-threatening crisis or pursue a life-changing reward. Certainly not for a marshmallow, or any incentive an ethical researcher can offer in the name of science. If this makes it difficult for psychologists to study willpower with their usual methodologies, well, they’re just going to have to work at it harder 🙂

    Report comment

  22. Arthur B. says:

    Your explanation is how I tend to think of willpower as well. Not infinite, just elastic. However you mention the explanation doesn’t fit drugs. Sadly I think it does. Modafinil does wonders for me, provided I do not use it too often. I wish it didn’t fit the explanation, but it does… it doesn’t give me more willpower money, just a higher credit limit.

    Report comment

  23. jmcgvr says:

    This talk presents a model of fatigue, fitness, and performance that has the same(?) basis as the Central Governor model. He shows impressive results using it to improve performance in at least one athlete. It’s easy for me to imagine it extends nicely to mental fitness, and that the drugs you mention maybe metabolize some brain waste-product that plays the role of lactic acid in muscles.

    Report comment

  24. clathrus says:

    What is ritualized religious fasting but the marshmallow test writ large?
    “Allah loves those who are patient” – Quran: 3:146
    Now, if we could devise and spread a religion in which the ability to fast successfully determined one’s social standing and reproductive success, we might get some interesting eugenic effects…

    Report comment

    • clathrus says:

      One of the main reasons I am luke-warm on public atheism? Atheists are insufficiently fecund.

      Being concerned about the veracity of religious claims and opposing religion is like being concerned about the egalitarianism of ant nests and trying to kill the queen ants.
      Far more interesting to find out which methods ants use to communicate and work out ways of co-opting their societies for other purposes.

      Without religion, or social structures very much like religion (various political ideologies), how else are you going to get large numbers of people to act against their own self-interest in favour of common causes?

      Report comment

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        “One of the main reasons I am luke-warm on public atheism? Atheists are insufficiently fecund. ”

        And the increase of gum consumption is correlated with an increase in crime. If there is a third factor causing the two (the most likely being social liberalism) than getting people to stop being atheists won’t have an effect.

        “Without religion, or social structures very much like religion (various political ideologies), how else are you going to get large numbers of people to act against their own self-interest in favour of common causes?”

        Religion isn’t to good at this- it only works when people feel their religion is the same. If fault lines appear (and they almost always do) it becomes a tribal marker for sides.

        As for alternative measures, it depends what you are talking about. Cultural homogeneity is always a good option so making the world more uniform would work- getting everyone to speak English would be a massive step forward.

        Report comment

      • Justin91 says:

        Speaking as a religious person, my take is that atheists have done a fine job in finding a moral purpose in life and creating a surrounding meta-ethical framework. I personally find their justifications to be as dubious as atheists find my justifications for the existence of God, but as a practical matter I don’t think atheists lack for meaning.

        I think the problem is more path-dependent. Secular culture is hedonistic, self-expressive, and generally status-seeking. It would benefit from a move towards a modern stoicism. I’m hoping for all our sakes’ that this happens. (Of course, once it does happen it will become way to extreme, and desperately need a backlash, but I’ll let my grandkids handle that one).

        Report comment

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          ” I personally find their justifications to be as dubious as atheists find my justifications for the existence of God”

          What? Most moral purposes boil down to “I desire this”. Religious divine command purpose boils down to “God desires this”. I’m not seeing the difference. God’s properties are supposed to be different, but if being good is the requirement than we should all lesson to Bentham and if being your maker is the requirement we should all obey our parents.

          “Secular culture is hedonistic, self-expressive, and generally status-seeking. It would benefit from a move towards a modern stoicism.”

          There is no incentive for that to happen. Movement the other way is more likely (gospel of wealth).

          After all status seeking isn’t unique to secular culture, but pervades all human activities so getting rid of that is neigh impossible.

          Self expression and hedonism are “solvable” but people like them so they culturally outcompete alternatives. Its globalized culture pushing aside traditional culture, not the other way around.

          Report comment

          • Randy M says:

            “What? Most moral purposes boil down to “I desire this”.”

            Actually, it boils down to “I desire this, and you should too.”
            That is, I think, he finds the justification for compelling ethical behavior beyond force of arms lacking.

            Report comment

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Now, if we could devise and spread a religion in which the ability to fast successfully determined one’s social standing and reproductive success, we might get some interesting eugenic effects.

      So maybe it’s not just the uniform and snappy salutes, that chicks dig? Or dug, when conceiving the Boom Babies.

      Report comment

    • ““Allah loves those who are patient” – Quran: 3:146
      Now, if we could devise and spread a religion in which the ability to fast successfully determined one’s social standing and reproductive success”

      Didn’t you just describe one? A believing Muslim must fast for a month a year (defined as no food, water or sex during the daytime). In many Islamic societies, being observed to keep the rules increased your social standing and, presumably, reproductive success.

      Report comment

  25. Thecommexokid says:

    You know how there are a ton of people who’ve experienced depression for whom Allie Brosh’s descriptions of depression on Hyperbole and a Half were the realest and true-to-life things they had ever read?

    Well, I found this pair of posts by Tim Urban to resonate with me about my internal experiences of motivation, procrastination, and akrasia more than anything I had ever read. You of course are ultimately hoping for a scientific explanation of willpower, which these posts certainly do not supply, but for me personally, they were a shockingly articulate and accurate description of what goes on in my own head on a daily basis.

    Report comment

  26. kernly says:

    The reason I got this book is that there’s a big debate going on over “willpower”, “ego depletion”, and their younger cousins “growth mindset” and “grit”.

    There’s a psychologist named Jordan Peterson whose lectures I have been watching. He says there are two major predictors of life success – intelligence, and industriousness, the latter being a component of the Big Five trait “conscientiousness.” He seemed to have a fair amount of respect for the Big Five. He said that human personality may or may not be five dimensional, but when you’re doing surveys you always end up catching correlations around the dimensions of the Big Five.

    He was VERY angry with the person who came up with the idea of “grit.” The way he put it was, if you want to waste a lot of money and time then just “discover” one of the Big Five traits and name it something else. It was well known that conscientiousness predicted success, but call it “grit” and suddenly everyone reacts as if something new has been discovered. I think he might have similar contempt for the idea of “willpower” – is there anything that separates your “amount of willpower” from your “industriousness”? And if they’re the same thing, then we know a lot more about what we’re dealing with – Big Five traits are heritable and very hard to change.

    Report comment

  27. houseboatonstyx says:

    – Having to make too many small decisions in a day causes “decision fatigue”, leading you to be exhausted and make bad decisions.

    During a long observation of me, I notice that sort of thing quite often. For example, in opening a bank account, by the time the person across the desk insists on me choosing not just the color of checks, but the font, color of font, color of border, etc, I’ve spent all my decision making capability (or even comprehension of each new option) and just pounce on the bank’s defaults. Which may have the consequence of a bad outcome.

    So I’m not quite sure why willpower is so focused on in these studies. There may be willpower in sticking to “I just want a plain Model XXXX,” and rejecting the other options a sales clerk tries to bring up. But in the marshmallow test, as someone commented, waiting for the second marshmallow/s may result from getting so distracted with other things that one forgets marshmallows altogether, rather than willpower to keep focused on either the second marshmallow/s (positive/desiring) or on the current marshmallow (negative/rejecting).

    Report comment

  28. zz says:

    Nitpick: if I’ve reached muscular failure, there is no amount of money you could offer me that would result in me doing another rep before resting. At best, you could get me to strain at a bar for some amount of time, although the weight would eventually come to rest on the floor/weightstack.

    This dovetails nicely with John Schilling’s point: you can pay someone to try to study for another hour, but it’s not obvious (and, I think, not true) that there exists an amount of money you could offer someone to put in an extra hour of productive studying once they’ve “maxed out” their brain, in much the same way that offering me (or, apparently, anyone else) one million dollars is going to get you a proof (or counterexample) of P = NP. “My muscles are too exhausted to do another rep” is as valid as “my brain is too saturated to study another hour” is as valid as “I’m not smart enough to solve a millenium prize problem.”

    (But don’t be tricked—most people give up well before running into these limits! The only way to make sure you’re not selling yourself short is to do your utmost to exceed them and fail, and in 2/3 of the above cases, there’s a good chance you’ll surprise yourself.)

    Report comment

    • Tracy W says:

      I read Frederick Douglas’s autobiography and he describes at one point being worked so hard that even a whipping by the slavedriver couldn’t get him moving again.

      Report comment

  29. Anonymous says:

    Procrastination only exists in a social environment, real or imagined. If the community says you should do X, and you do X, then you are yielding territory, unless it’s a clearly mutual treaty. This is also why money kills motivation, unless you’re very careful. It’s not the external reward, it’s the signalling of submission that often comes with accepting it. Altruism is enforced by extortion at critical times. If you live alone and have successfully cleared your mind from other people, are you going to procrastinate on picking berries to eat? No. But you will if you live in a community where it’s your job and you will lose whether you do it or not.
    It’s all just a big “procrastination equation”, but you have to be very careful to take all aspects, especially energy management and social games [including those with imagined players], into account. The word “willpower” draws a box around some parts of both, and is confusing.
    I wish the social was mentioned more, because it is really central.

    Report comment

    • Thecommexokid says:

      If you live alone and have successfully cleared your mind from other people, are you going to procrastinate on picking berries to eat? No.

      I will guess that you’ve never lived with depression, then.

      Report comment

      • Anonymous says:

        Actually I have, if you call “having the plants in your room wither because you couldn’t get yourself to water them for weeks, and thinking everyone hates you and only talks to you because they anticipate your suicide and want to make sure they won’t feel guilty when you do” depression. I was not diagnosed though. I realized to get better I had to do something instead of nothing, so I created a mental todo with only “play video games” on it. Couldn’t even get myself to double click on the icon. And the feeling I had was of being judged all the time, some kind of abstract mixture-of-several-judgmental-persons dark cloud hanging above me.

        So my statement was (at least in my case) vacuously true, because I was not able to clear my mind from other people (and abstract representations thereof).

        Looking back, I realize that it was actually pretty much correct and normal, aside from the extreme degree. There is a lot of random stuff going on in people’s thoughts so there is not as much room for the worrying-what-other-people-think. But it does appear. People who procrastinate have no trouble doing all kinds of things all the time, even things that aren’t a habit. Yet they procrastinate on things that are less difficult or painful, even things they normally enjoy, but it has become a goal in their heads, which is literally a mental abstraction of a person of group of people saying “you should do this” all the time. The personality of this “person” and what it says is a concoction of your past interactions with people. If they’re mostly extortion-based, you’re gonna have a bad time.

        Report comment

  30. ishaan says:

    >The guy who can’t concentrate on a project for more than five minutes straight will pull a whole week of all-nighters when he’s on Adderall or modafinil. Those certainly aren’t increasing blood glucose, so what’s up?

    My pet theory, which is admittedly mostly introspection, is that attention zeroes in on “reward”, and that stimulants (caffeine, adderal, modafinil, or otherwise) are directly altering the excitability of the “reward” system such that it takes smaller threshold of achievement to feel good about accomplishment: The difference between “I did two things, ugh, 298 to go” vs “I did two things! Yay, progress!”

    (This also explains the glucose result – the sugar receptors are priming the reward centers)

    (This also explains why Civ IV expends no willpower: the in-game accomplishments are designed to feel like significant achievements.)

    (This also explains why the promise of a million dollars gets you to run another lap. Expectation of money activates reward centers.)

    …I don’t think that this is entirely what “willpower” consists of though. That’s just the “motivation” sub-component of willpower.

    Report comment

  31. Shaun says:

    has anyone looked into supplements that might plausibly help with depletion?

    Report comment

  32. John Fouhy says:

    Reading this reminded me of Jure Robic, a Slovenian ultra ultra distance cyclist (who, unfortunately, was killed in a training accident a few years ago). Robic won the race across America a few times (a nonstop cycle race from coast to coast).

    There is a fascinating article here, written before his death.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/sports/playmagazine/05robicpm.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    “In a consideration of Robic, three facts are clear: he is nearly indefatigable, he is occasionally nuts, and the first two facts are somehow connected. The question is, How? Does he lose sanity because he pushes himself too far, or does he push himself too far because he loses sanity?”

    “In all decisions, Stanovnik governs according to a rule of thumb that he has developed over the years: at the dark moment when Robic feels utterly exhausted, when he is so empty and sleep-deprived that he feels as if he might literally die on the bike, he actually has 50 percent more energy to give.”

    Report comment

  33. Richard Harper says:

    There’s an old story about an anthropologist in Africa noticing he was being stalked by lions and the vehicle was too far away. He wound up frantically scrambling up a tree. Later he and others went back – no one could climb the tree. So when I used to run sprints and start to slow down I’d imagine a lion was chasing me. It always worked. I tricked the energy allocation module in my mind into releasing those extra reserves. As with food consumption and some other modules there are firewalls between it and our conscious mind that are difficult to get around.

    Report comment

  34. Matt says:

    A similar narrative about the conflict b/w the Executive/Default show up many works about economic behavior. Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein calls it the Automatic/Reflective systems and how that leads to the irrational behavior of Humans opposed to the optimizing Econs. They discuss how many small, easy, cheap interventions trigger the Reflective system -> Improving Outcomes.

    Report comment

  35. Kyle Strand says:

    What if willpower *is* related to the management of limited resources, but is not *itself* a bit resource? I.e., what if there is some combination of resources, both biochemical (such as glucose) and abstract (such as available time), that is (imprecisely) monitored by a single psychosomatic trigger, which we call “willpower”? The separation of the trigger from the resource itself would explain some of the imperfect heuristics, such as the glucose-rinse result.

    Report comment

  36. Cheers says:

    The key trick may be to use your limited willpower to learn skills that allow you to get things done without expending so much willpower (WOOP for motivation, quit playing computer games so your hedonic baseline resets, meditate, etc.)

    Report comment

  37. Love this (as always) and just want to cast my vote to review Carol Dweck’s book next: http://www.amazon.com/Mindset-Psychology-Success-Carol-Dweck/dp/0345472322

    So far I’m on her side in the Baumeister vs Dweck debate, so I’m eager to hear what’s behind that “if Dweck were an oncologist” jab (or maybe it was entirely good-natured).

    To argue against your million-dollar analogy: With physical endurance you approach a physical limit asymptotically. The feeling that you can always eke out more with the right inducement is an illusion. Eventually one more straw will in fact break a camel’s back. As for willpower… With the right inducement (say, continued employment) you can exert superhuman willpower, like waking up early and going to work every day for years or decades. Which is to say that with the right incentives, willpower doesn’t even need to be invoked. So maybe I’m saying that it doesn’t matter if willpower is unlimited, you can route around it and find creative ways to induce yourself to do what you really want to do.

    Dammit, I degenerated immediately to pitching Beeminder again!

    But to finish the thought, as I’ve argued in the comments above, the best way to use Beeminder, at least initially, is not to probe the hard limits of willpower but to fix egregious instances of akrasia — to do a bit more than the bupkes you’d do if left to your own devices. You can then gradually dial up the steepness of your graph, but certainly stop doing that before feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.

    In other words, make a measurable improvement well below the point that the limits of willpower are even a question (if you don’t think of it as routing around willpower altogether). Some people — like the productivity-ueber-alles types who try polyphasic sleep and whatnot — thrive on adding stress and Beeminder can accommodate that. But using it in moderation can reduce stress, like by getting you to spread your studying out over a semester instead of cramming for exams, or by making you pay attention to your fitbit just enough to actually get in 10k steps a day, or getting yourself to bed on time instead of repeatedly getting in “one more point” in a comment thread till 2am.

    Report comment

  38. houseboatonstyx says:

    Also, turns out that if you rinse your mouth out with a tasty glucose solution, you get just the same amount of ego replenishment even though none of the glucose actually entered your body. And for that matter, how come I can’t get infinite willpower just by snacking while I work? How come M&Ms don’t work as a poor man’s Adderall?

    Another factor here might be, the muscle and posture work involved in the drinking/rinsing on the one hand — vs the less work of picking up a few M&Ms, or sipping from a bottle on the desk, every few minutes. The rinsing would involve leaning over something to spit in, which would probably mean standing up before and after. If actually drinking the glucose solution is all done at once, again that means at least straightening up, leaning back, and gulping. For some people (kinesthetic?) even this very short pause and movement may provide a break and a new perspective, regardless of the content of the liquids.

    Report comment

  39. Pingback: A week of links | EVOLVING ECONOMICS

  40. David Moss says:

    “But this strikes me as ridiculous – my brain is very concerned that it has better things to do than study, but is perfectly happy with me playing Civilization IV: Fall From Heaven forever or simply lying in bed doing nothing?”

    But Civ IV is very rewarding- large parts of your brain are being told that this is a great activity that is paying off handsomely, hence no general warning signal, just your executive saying that this might seem like a good thing but it’s really terrible. Conversely if you try to read a Spanish dictionary from front to back because your executive thinks it’s a good idea, despite it bringing no tangible payoffs throughout, large parts of your brain may well be screaming that this is a waste of time and you should go off and do something more useful. I guess what I’m saying- that aversiveness comes from unrewarding, time and energy consuming tasks, and is held in check by the executive until eventually it overpowers executive control (a feature not a bug) is different from what Kurzban is saying though.

    Also energy usage by the brain seems to impact on perceived energy balance weirdly: like it doesn’t burn all that many extra calories, but mentally taxing work makes people want to eat more (http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2008/09/study-heavy-mental-effort-leads-to-much-bigger-meals/)

    Report comment

  41. WhyBoostIQ says:

    For some new perspectives on increasing willpower, the latest issue of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience is all about “motivation enhancement,” and the role that smart-drugs, interventions, etc. can play in that process. Sample article titles include “Enhancing Motivation by Use of Prescription Stimulants,” “Stop Wishing. Start Doing!: Motivational Enhancement Is Already in Use,” “Cognitive Enhancement to Overcome Laziness: Ethically Wrong or Just Stupid?” and many more. Haven’t read the issue yet, but plan to soon.

    Report comment

  42. JayMan says:

    there are only two quantities in psychology that have been robustly linked to a broad range of important life outcomes. One is IQ and isn’t changeable. The other is willpower and is easily changeable. Therefore, study willlpower.

    Are you sure willpower is changeable? One longitudinal behavioral genetic study found that, among children, “self-control” is pretty stable from one time point to the next, and is 76% heritable. (Of course, in longitudinal studies, it’s hard to separate trait instability from genetically mediated development – one way around that problem is to break down the ACE components of change. Change related to E suggest unreliability, which changes related to A suggest genetically-influenced direction. Then there is breaking out innovative genetic influence from amplification of existing variation. They could have done that in this study, but it doesn’t appear they did.)

    But that brings us to a big point: how are we defining “willpower?” I don’t particularly like that term – self-control, or the ability to delay gratification seem more useful. In other words, these are aspects of conscientiousness.

    In any case, don’t bet on the changeable part, drugs notwithstanding (and of course, note these are stimulants used on people with attention “disorders”, which is interesting).

    “Chinese-Americans do better than white Americans on willpower tests from toddlerhood toward adulthood. This is the most likely reason Chinese people outperform whites in the real world, and in fact although average white and Chinese IQ are pretty similar”

    Hold on there: a 5-point difference in mean IQ (105 vs 100, Chinese vs. U.S. White, respectively) is nothing to shake a stick at. Differences in the mean get magnified enormously at the extremes, for one (assuming similar standard deviations, which appears to be the case).

    Chinese people can break into “elite” professions at a lower IQ threshold than whites because their increased self-control compensates.

    Yes. The above said, East Asians do appear to be higher in conscientiousness than say U.S. Whites.

    (See Predictions on the Worldwide Distribution of Personality | JayMan’s Blog)

    There is a meta-analysis of about a hundred studies said Baumeister was basically right about everything. On the other hand, Baumeister’s theory failed what sounds like a formal replication. So it’s complicated.

    Well, I didn’t see any mention of publication bias in that study, and I’m not about to trust an aggregation of classic psychological studies, as the second article attests to. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Report comment

    • Wulfrickson says:

      James Flynn wrote a book in 1991 (Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ) that reviewed the then-current IQ studies of Asian Americans and argued that the difference between Asian and white mean IQ in the US was insignificant and, if anything, slightly in whites’ favor. I read through it a while back and it seemed plausible. Do you have thoughts about it?

      Report comment

  43. Scott H. says:

    My parents thought I was destined for greatness. Then they found out that I just didn’t care for marshmallows.

    Report comment

  44. Will Powers says:

    Important model for consideration, by George Ainslie:

    “Behavioral science has long been puzzled by the experience of temptation, the resulting impulsiveness, and the variably successful control of this impulsiveness. Breakdown of Will (Ainslie, 2001) presents evidence that contradicts rational models in which discounting the value of future events at a constant rate keeps preference consistent. Both people and nonhuman animals discount the value of expected events in a curve where value is divided approximately by expected delay, a hyperbolic form that is more bowed than the rational, exponential curve. This finding implies that conflicting reward-seeking processes will arise spontaneously to get incompatible goals available at different times, that in humans these processes will in effect bargain with each other, and that this bargaining can create ego functions like willpower from the bottom up. Motivation-based models of classical conditioning, compulsiveness, empathy, and the social construction of belief become possible.”

    _Picoeconomics_ is the Masterwork though.
    http://picoeconomics.org/

    Easy Reading version is Breakdown of Will, short abstract quoted above.
    http://picoeconomics.org/HTarticles/Bkdn_Precis/Precis2.html

    Report comment

    • This is exactly right, and it’s why Dweck is right. Willpower is kind of an illusion, a manifestation of the conflict between desires at different timescales. Which is why commitment devices, by changing your incentives, route around the problem entirely.

      Report comment

  45. Troy says:

    Chinese-Americans do better than white Americans on willpower tests from toddlerhood toward adulthood. This is the most likely reason Chinese people outperform whites in the real world, and in fact although average white and Chinese IQ are pretty similar, Chinese people can break into “elite” professions at a lower IQ threshold than whites because their increased self-control compensates. The book admits this may be partly genetic, but also attributes some of it to Chinese parents teaching their children discipline and setting hard goals, which they contrast with white parents who tell their kids to “have fun” and “have high self-esteem” and “be self-directed”.

    But, which group is happier?

    Report comment

  46. moridinamael says:

    Illustrations of the utility of finite willpower over unlimited willpower:

    “I’m going to dive to the bottom of the lake.”

    “I’m going to keep working on this project until it’s finished, no matter what happens.”

    “This is really starting to hurt, but I committed to finishing it.”

    “Everyone has been telling me this is a bad idea and I’ve started to agree, but I committed to finishing it.”

    “When I started climbing this mountain there wasn’t a blizzard in progress, but I’m sure I can just willpower through this blizzard and reach the summit.”

    Report comment

  47. dlr says:

    You’re doing a real disservice to your readers by not including the effect sizes when you quote a study. In every single one of the studies you cited, my immediate question was, “by how much?”

    “Chinese-Americans do better than white Americans on willpower tests from toddlerhood toward adulthood.” – by how much? 1%? 10%? 100%? Who knows? We all ASSUME that the study authors wouldn’t waste their time and ours unless the effect size was worth considering, but that is FREQUENTLY not true. They publish their study no matter what the effect size is, if they can get that magic P<.05. If they aren't making it EASY to figure out how big their effect size is, WHY NOT? If you're not reporting the effect size, WHY NOT? I want to know if the effect is a delta of 1% or 50%. And it is just foolish to assume that any study published in a reputable journal has an effect size big enough that we should include it in our schemata of how the world works. Especially in the social sciences.

    Just as important, is the confidence interval. That tells me (and you) about the SECOND HURDLE the study has to jump over to prove it is worth paying any attention to. You are setting the bar too low if you are willing to take seriously any study that clears the low bar of P < .05 ( or .01 either) . We need to know the power of the study too, the sample size.

    The study author can wrap both pieces of information up in one nice package by telling us the RANGE OF EFFECT SIZES their study implies. If the author buries that information, they are being INTENTIONALLY OBSCURE, and no doubt for a very good reason. They don't want to say, right out "Our effect size is 10%, +/- 30%", 95% confidence interval", because even their colleagues (and newspaper reporters) can see immediately that their study doesn't prove much of anything. So instead they say P < .02!!!, and hope we're all fools. Which mostly we all are, since it's a lot of trouble to convert from P<.02 and the (buried) sample size, and the (buried) effect size to the confidence intervals.

    So we end up with a lot of one off studies that will never replicate, that are as reliable as some number pulled out of my left ear, where lots of times not even the SIGN of the effect can be determined by the 95% confidence interval, being dressed up in "Wow! it's SCIENCE" clothes, and being paid attention to by (alas) even the well informed. Whereas in fact, in most cases, we'd be better off asking our grandma. At least then we don't think we know something that we don't.

    Most social science studies are bunk. You're doing your readers a real disservice by quoting any study if you don't include the effect size and the confidence interval. This isn't (shouldn't be) a burden on you, even if you have to tediously dig out the raw facts and calculate the confidence intervals yourself. It's a favor you are doing yourself, too. Otherwise you are cluttering up your brain with a lot of 'facts' that just aren't true.

    Report comment

    • Douglas Knight says:

      where lots of times not even the SIGN of the effect can be determined by the 95% confidence interval

      No, the confidence interval excludes zero. That’s what statistically significant means.

      Report comment

      • dlr says:

        That is not true. The confidence interval is the likely range of the true value. Note that there is only one true value, and that the confidence interval defines the range where it’s most likely to be. IF THE TRUE VALUE IS ZERO, then (usually, hopefully, 95% of the time) the confidence interval WILL include zero, the true value.

        Report comment

    • dlr says:

      Here’s a good example (numbers made up)

      Coffee and cancer:

      “The likelihood that you will get cancer of the esophagus is 2 times greater if you drink more than 3 cups of coffee a day, P < .01 (95% confidence interval +5, -3)".

      Headlines galore "COFFEE CAUSES CANCER!!!!!"

      But look at the confidence interval, drinking coffee makes the probability of your getting cancer SOMEWHERE IN THE RANGE OF 5 times MORE likely to 3 times LESS likely. They literally do not even know if you are better off drinking MORE coffee or LESS coffee, to reduce your chances of esophageal cancer.

      And yet, this study will get lots of attention in the media, scientific as well as general media, with the confidence interval buried, of course, and (guaranteed), never explained. "Why?", you ask. Well, duh, no story if you actually explained what a truly pathetic piece of non-news it was. Consider the headlines: "Scientists determine that they don't know if drinking coffee is bad for you or not!! P< .01!!! Details at 11!!".

      No one gets put on tenure track for that. Or quoted in the New York Times. So, they bury the confidence interval in the small print on page 17 (behind a pay wall) and just report in the abstract, TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY, P < .01.

      Report comment

  48. Scott writes:

    ” I never have enough willpower for everything I want to do, and I’d at least like to have a theory of what I’m up against. ”

    That I can tell you. There are only 24 hours in a day and, judging by your output, you are already using all of them. When you finally run out of modafinal and have to go to sleep instead of posting another essay, the rest of us will have the problem of dealing with our withdrawal symptoms

    Report comment

  49. Thread on the Beeminder forum about book recommendations that was inspired by Scott’s post: http://forum.beeminder.com/t/book-recommendations/596

    Report comment

  50. That bit about if you were given a million dollars to keep studying: for a book that elaborates on that model, check out Breakdown of Will by George Ainslie.

    Also, I apologize for making a plug, but I wrote a very long essay on attention and willpower a year and a half ago that is still the most recent entry on my blog.

    TLDR of that post is that I think the “ego depletion” model is too linear and also changes our mental model from “homonculus” to “homonculus with a gas tank”. I propose that attention has more to do with the inherent pull of feedback, and that the application of “willpower” works more like an ignition starter.

    Also, one last note: to go into depth about the million dollars parable, consider that there is a physical equivalent: our maximum physical strength is enough to do things like lift part of a car for a couple of seconds if we’re in grave danger. But our body “fails” much sooner at the gym because the risk of injury is unacceptable. Much of exercise is actually training the nervous system to use its reserves more safely, and by extension, more readily.

    Report comment

  51. Matt says:

    The glucose effect on willpower was not observed in the control group which received sucralose–so this implies either that the effect is due to some sort of metabolism of glucose specifically, or that there are special receptors that only bind glucose but not sucralose.

    Report comment

  52. Kaj Sotala says:

    Another attack on the resource-based model of willpower: Michael Inzlicht, Brandon J. Schmeichel and C. Neil Macrae have a paper called “Why Self-Control Seems (but may not be) Limited” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Ungated version here.

    Some of the most interesting points:

    * Over 100 studies appear to be consistent with self-control being a limited resource, but generally these studies do not observe resource depletion directly, but infer it from whether or not people’s performance declines in a second self-control task.
    * The only attempts to directly measure the loss or gain of a resource have been studies measuring blood glucose, but these studies have serious limitations, the most important being an inability to replicate evidence of mental effort actually affecting the level of glucose in the blood.
    * Self-control also seems to replenish by things such as “watching a favorite television program, affirming some core value, or even praying”, which would seem to conflict with the hypothesis inherent resource limitations. The resource-based model also seems evolutionarily implausible.

    The authors offer their own theory of self-control. One-sentence summary (my formulation, not from the paper): “Our brains don’t want to only work, because by doing some play on the side, we may come to discover things that will allow us to do even more valuable work.”

    Ultimately, self-control limitations are proposed to be an exploration-exploitation tradeoff, “regulating the extent to which the control system favors task engagement (exploitation) versus task disengagement and sampling of other opportunities (exploration)”.

    Research suggests that cognitive effort is inherently aversive, and that after humans have worked on some task for a while, “ever more resources are needed to counteract the aversiveness of work, or else people will gravitate toward inherently rewarding leisure instead”. According to the model proposed by the authors, this allows the organism to both focus on activities that will provide it with rewards (exploitation), but also to disengage from them and seek activities which may be even more rewarding (exploration). Feelings such as boredom function to stop the organism from getting too fixated on individual tasks, and allow us to spend some time on tasks which might turn out to be even more valuable.

    The explanation of the actual proposed psychological mechanism is good enough that it deserves to be quoted in full:

    > Based on the tradeoffs identified above, we propose that initial acts of control lead to shifts in motivation away from “have-to” or “ought-to” goals and toward “want-to” goals (see Figure 2). “Have-to” tasks are carried out through a sense of duty or contractual obligation, while “want-to” tasks are carried out because they are personally enjoyable and meaningful [41]; as such, “want-to” tasks feel easy to perform and to maintain in focal attention [41]. The distinction between “have-to” and “want-to,” however, is not always clear cut, with some “want-to” goals (e.g., wanting to lose weight) being more introjected and feeling more like “have-to” goals because they are adopted out of a sense of duty, societal conformity, or guilt instead of anticipated pleasure [53].

    > According to decades of research on self-determination theory [54], the quality of motivation that people apply to a situation ranges from extrinsic motivation, whereby behavior is performed because of external demand or reward, to intrinsic motivation, whereby behavior is performed because it is inherently enjoyable and rewarding. Thus, when we suggest that depletion leads to a shift from “have-to” to “want-to” goals, we are suggesting that prior acts of cognitive effort lead people to prefer activities that they deem enjoyable or gratifying over activities that they feel they ought to do because it corresponds to some external pressure or introjected goal. For example, after initial cognitive exertion, restrained eaters prefer to indulge their sweet tooth rather than adhere to their strict views of what is appropriate to eat [55]. Crucially, this shift from “have-to” to “want-to” can be offset when people become (internally or externally) motivated to perform a “have-to” task [49]. Thus, it is not that people cannot control themselves on some externally mandated task (e.g., name colors, do not read words); it is that they do not feel like controlling themselves, preferring to indulge instead in more inherently enjoyable and easier pursuits (e.g., read words). Like fatigue, the effect is driven by reluctance and not incapability [41] (see Box 2).

    > Research is consistent with this motivational viewpoint. Although working hard at Time 1 tends to lead to less control on “have-to” tasks at Time 2, this effect is attenuated when participants are motivated to perform the Time 2 task [32], personally invested in the Time 2 task [56], or when they enjoy the Time 1 task [57]. Similarly, although performance tends to falter after continuously performing a task for a long period, it returns to baseline when participants are rewarded for their efforts [58]; and remains stable for participants who have some control over and are thus engaged with the task [59]. Motivation, in short, moderates depletion [60]. We suggest that changes in task motivation also mediate depletion [61].

    > Depletion, however, is not simply less motivation overall. Rather, it is produced by lower motivation to engage in “have-to” tasks, yet higher motivation to engage in “want-to” tasks. Depletion stokes desire [62]. Thus, working hard at Time 1 increases approach motivation, as indexed by self-reported states, impulsive responding, and sensitivity to inherently-rewarding, appetitive stimuli [63]. This shift in motivational priorities from “have-to” to “want-to” means that depletion can increase the reward value of inherently-rewarding stimuli. For example, when depleted dieters see food cues, they show more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain area associated with coding reward value, compared to non-depleted dieters [64].

    When I first posted on this, one person asked about how their experience with voluntary self-study for entertainment fit into this, since they would get cognitively tired despite doing a “want-to” ask, but could somewhat diminish the effect by switching to a textbook on another topic.

    To answer that, it feels like this model would be worth combining with Kurzban et al’s model (which you mentioned), which posits that as we continue working on some task for an extended time, our brain’s estimate of the marginal benefit of continuing to work on this task gradually declines, making it more likely that we will switch to doing something else.

    If we furthermore combine things with Alexander Boland’s model (which I see he plugged just above my comment), which posits that the amount of interest that one has for some domain is relative to one’s sensitivity to feedback in that domain, then that might be a step towards figuring out why exactly some things are intrinsically motivating. People tend to have an intrinsic interest in the kinds of things where they initially felt like they could make quick progress in – possibly pushed by some kind of drive for compressing information – or where they made slow progress at first, but then learned to understand the domain better via (possibly externally enforced) determined practice. That would suggest that areas that are high on intrinsic motivation are ones where we are sensitive to the feedback and generally interested in the topic, whereas topics where we are low on intrinsic motivation (and have to rely on extrinsic motivation) are ones we are less sensitive to feedback (and which we frequently experience ourselves as being bad at). This is also compatible with Kurzban’s model, in that if you get frequent feedback from doing something, then that suggests that your marginal benefit of continuing with that task is much higher than it’d be if you didn’t get much feedback.

    Now consider the act of reading those textbooks. It depends on how exactly you read, but reading is often a relatively low-feedback act: you just obtain new information and store it, and furthermore a dense technical text may require you to tightly focus your attention on just the text, which is exactly the kind of task with a high opportunity cost that Kurzban’s model would predict to quickly “drain your reserves” (a resource metaphor seems convenient here even if it’s not actually about resources). On the other hand, if you actively try to predict what’s the next thing that’s said in the text, draw analogies to other things that you know, etc., then that provides you with more feedback, but also requires more dedicated cognitive effort again.

    Compare that with another person’s example of having the energy for six hours of programming after coming home from work – programming also requires a lot of attention, but it is also a very high-feedback task, where you can constantly make changes, test if the code still compiles, see if the change is working as intended, etc.

    I’m not sure of where exactly something like watching TV fits in this three-way model of (interest in topic * intensity of feedback / exclusivity of cognitive effort). TV seems like the kind of task that you don’t necessarily need strong cognitive focus on, but also not something that would offer much feedback, at least not if we define feedback as a two-way interaction… but that may not necessarily be the right definition to use, given that e.g. a book can plausibly give you feedback in the sense of it causing you to think about things that you otherwise wouldn’t have, and giving you new ideas about related topics.

    The notion of feedback also gets interesting when we consider reading fiction – I’ve noticed that I tend to read novels relatively quickly, but not visualizing the events very strongly, whereas a friend of mine reads much slower, I think in part because she’s an eidetic visualizer who takes the time to really see the various events in her mind’s eye. Our respective reading strategies might be a product of our respective sensitivities to feedback in the domain of visualizing… for me, strong and detailed visualizations take a lot of effort, so I go with the strategy that provides me with less feedback but also requires less focus, whereas for her the more rewarding strategy is to take her time, which may require more cognitive effort (though much less than it would for me) but also provides her with much richer feedback.

    Report comment

  53. anon says:

    >if I offer you a million dollars to study another hour then you’ll do it
    Will I? I mean, sure, I’ll spend an hour looking at the material. But I’m not confident that as test will show me having progressed in that hour.

    If Kurzban offers me a million dollars to keep running after I fall down, I will accept and I’ll crawl for an hour and he will conclude that muscle effort is not a limited resource. Because he isn’t measuring distance traveled but rather just taking my word for it (or even worse, just conducting a thought experiment).

    Report comment

  54. DrBeat says:

    “The guy who can’t concentrate on a project for more than five minutes straight will pull a whole week of all-nighters when he’s on Adderall or modafinil. ”

    As someone who has no willpower and is on Adderall for narcolepsy, why is it that everyone else gets this benefit and I don’t?

    Report comment

  55. Sebastian H says:

    I suspect it is related to the question of sports cramping.

    People will tell you all sorts of things about cramping during exercise, but it isn’t well understood. It seems to be some sort of warning that you are going to hurt your muscles. (Though perversely the cramping itself can cause damage). It also seems to have something to do with water and salt levels in the blood and/or muscles.

    The reason I suspect it is related is because of the most common cure for serious sports cramping (assuming you want to keep going on with the physical activity). That cure is pickle juice, or some other salty liquid, but if you look into pickle juice it does seem to be the most effective treatment. I’ve tried it, and if you drink about two mouth-fulls of pickle juice your cramping will stop in less than a minute. This is strange, but well documented. (Seriously look up pickle juice plus cramps).

    Lots of speculation about salt levels and such are used to explain it. But if you think about it for a minute, the SPEED of the cure is really vexing. There is no way that the salt or vinegar or whatever the hell is working from the pickle juice is getting into the blood fast enough to explain the cure for cramping. That is why I strongly suspect that sports cramping is a bio-warning system–because your body turns it off when it get some sort of signal from the pickle juice.

    See for example this report which specifically refers to exhaustion….

    Report comment

  56. jake says:

    *UPDATE* I had not read Kaj Sotala’s comments about ‘intrinsic motivation’ and ‘sensitivity to feedback’ when I typed this in, but that bit sounds a more complete telling of what I am trying to say.

    Could willpower be a function of the rewards at hand? As in, the people that seem to have high willpower are the ones that are operating in a sweet spot between a task being too easy, not being challenging enough and no worthwhile feedback/reward versus it being just challenging enough with the right amount of feedback (praise, acclaim, the right answer?). From personal anecdotal experience, I seem to learn best and find myself continually motivated towards something if that thing gives me enough returns in terms of a reward (status points, curiosity being sated, etc.) while not being exceedingly difficult (of course this difficulty level adapts to my current skill)

    This could also explain why you, or anyone finds enough willpower reserves playing video games, because video games excel in this sort of reward mechanism. Also, videogames provide you enough high intensity short term reward to override any longer (system 2 derived) goal oriented plan, like studying for exams. I’m going to overreach here and suggest that this could explain why good students find more willpower to stick to their lessons/studying in the face of distractions because they receive continual positive feedback about their performance that makes it worth their while?

    Essentially willpower is the thing that drives goal directed actions in the short term and relies on rewards to be refilled. And this is trainable.

    Report comment

    • Thomas says:

      Yup, the idea of flow fits well here, makes sense of the point about videogame. This is also why I probably have a lack of willpower at my current job, it’s become too easy/habitual.

      Report comment

  57. Lila says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for posting these reviews – I hope you’ll continue to do them. I almost never read books because I think they’re a waste of time, and this allows me to get all the useful info from books without putting in so much effort. 🙂

    Report comment

  58. Pingback: Quotes & Links #51 | Seeing Beyond the Absurd

  59. Thomas says:

    Interesting review, I read Willpower a few years back and had the same sort of response. Very pop-sci. Probably the thing I took out of it the most was the story of Livingstone (?) who shaved every day as a habit, and had a lot of tenacity and drive, basically grit. This ties into another book I read recently, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, which explores how habits are formed and what they are. I think you touch on it here, that willpower is directly affected by habit. If certain necessary acts become habits they don’t draw on willpower so much. I think looking at the psychology of habits might help you in your quest to draw on willpower more effectively. I’m in Viet Nam at the moment, and I would hazard a guess that the Vietnamese have ingrained driving habits, just so that getting home from work doesn’t leave them exhausted of all their willpower.

    Also, the story about Livingstone was brought back to me recently when my grandfather died. He had suffered from lung cancer for years, but when he died he asked his two daughters to assist him to the bathroom to shave. In his last moments of life he lost control, and to get it back he insisted on a habit.

    This makes me think that as you said, the kids of the marshmallow test and other tests merely had good habits of mind.

    Report comment

  60. I’d be curious to know the effect that short (20-minute) and long (a single REM cycle) naps have on ego repletion.

    Report comment

  61. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2015/03/18 | Free Northerner

  62. Pingback: Spark Weekend SF Review | Opentheory.net