Enough self-control not to need it

I just finished Willpower, the new book by psychologist Roy Baumeister and NYT columnist John Tierney. My overall take on the book is towards the end of this post. I first was introduced to the science of self-control via the Bloggingheads video above, which I highly recommend. The most fascinating bit to me was the fact that aggregate self-control predicts happiness in couples, but that self-control “opposites” attract. If you’re high self-control, you’ll be attracted to the messy procrastinator, but you’ll be happier with the similarly fastidious, strong-willed mate. Neat stuff, right? So I was pretty excited for this book.

The video made clear that willpower was both a scarce resource in the short term – using it on one thing like resisting food meant you had less of it for something seemingly unrelated like holding your temper – and able to be strengthened over the long term. On any given day you have a finite amount of willpower, but like a muscle it can be strengthened over time.

That got me wondering if there was a tension between self-control and the sort of “choice architecture” pre-commitment devices  tricks recommended by folks like Dan Ariely. If Ariely recommends putting your credit card in ice so you don’t overspend, are you actually foregoing the opportunity to strengthen your self-control, to your long-term detriment?

I emailed philosopher Josh Knobe (from the BhTV video) about this in July 2010, putting it this way:

In the diavlog, you discuss how self-control is finite – at least in the short-term.  Yet, over the long-term it’s something you can exercise and grow.  So hypothetically let’s say I’m the kind of person who would have eaten the marshmallow.  I have low self-control that needs to be dealt with somehow.

One prescription would be to practice self-control and build up my resources there.  But it seems like there’s another solution that’s also being popularized at present, in line with some of the work of behavioral economists including folks like Dan Ariely.  This school of thought seems to suggest that if I have a tendency to make a certain bad decision that jeopardizes my long-term happiness, I can deal with that by taking steps to constrain my future actions, to alter the choices I’ll have to make in ways that make me more likely to make good decisions.

But does this strategy come at the expense of developing needed self-control?

To take a specific example… Say I have a problem with credit card debt.  I just can’t help myself from buying things with my credit card that I can’t afford.  Ariely says I’d be better off just carrying around cash since I feel a twinge of guilt when I pay with it, and I’d be less likely to build up debt.

But in a way, this is skirting the self-control issue.  I’m actively avoiding that circumstance where I lack self-control, which may be missing an opportunity to build up greater stores of it for the future.  You could object that I could still build up self-control in other arenas, while using the cash technique.  But if you consider these two strategies more generally, I still see at least a potential conflict.

So the question is this: in general, will I be better off coming up with tricks and systems to avoid decisions that require significant self-control that I might not have, per Ariely?  Or should I face these decisions head on, and use the practice to build up greater self-control in the long run?

Professor Knobe was kind enough to respond. He didn’t answer definitively but guessed that in practice it wouldn’t end up being a problem (my intuition as well). And yet I remained curious. So I was pleased to see Baumeister and Tierney provided the answer in Willpower:

Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often? But then an explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. This explanation jived with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and work. (pg. 239)

So there shouldn’t be any tension here. To change your choice architecture takes self-control. If you’re taking tips about avoiding vices from Ariely or anyone else, you still are getting in your self-control “practice” in instituting the change. And so you build up self-control and then also don’t need to expend it in the face of temptation (since you’ve avoided it). That leaves you with built up discipline to institute new life changes to further avoid temptations, and so on. So in practice it seems clear to me that the tension I’d wondered about doesn’t exist.

So that was nice to finally have settled.

Now, the book in general… I have to say I think this is a mediocre book on a fantastic topic. Baumeister’s research is fascinating and Tierney is an excellent writer, but I felt throughout that the material was just a little thin for filling up a whole book. That’s how I interpreted the inclusion of things like David Blaine or Drew Carey and Oprah’s battles with self-control. They felt a bit like filler. Perhaps I’m wrong, and they were meant to make the book more accessible. But the writing was already admirably accessible and the material incredibly relevant. There seemed to be no need to add these lengthy anecdotes.

There was also a fair amount of confusion and potential contradictions. Am I supposed to only make one goal at a time? Or always have several? Both are recommended at different points. Should I make goals that are “bright lines”, like no drinking, or set realistic goals like cutting back only a little? Both are recommended. These contradictions aren’t inherent; I’m certain that in conversation with Baumeister or Tierney they could explain how these aren’t in tension. But many of these seeming contradictions went unaddressed (some were addressed, to be fair).

This is still worth a read if, like me, you find the subject fascinating. But I couldn’t help but think that it had the meat of about 3 excellent long-form magazine pieces (like the terrific one Tierney did on decision fatigue!) that could have cut out the attempt to read self-control lessons into figures in popular culture and could have been slightly more careful in their recommendations.

But this is stuff you need to learn more about. You’ll get a lot out of the book if you’re not familiar with the subject. If you’re not sold based on my lukewarm review, at least read the Tierney article or watch the BhTV video. As for me, I knew when I came home from work and decided to blog that I was using up willpower, leaving me less available to force myself to go for a run. But I’m going to try to use the last of my glucose – yep, read about it – to get a few miles in.

UPDATE: changed choice architecture to pre-commitment devices, which is a bit clearer. And I did get my run in. Go willpower.