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.

Willpower and education

Via Yglesias, Kay Steiger has good thoughts:

Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from University of Maryland University College pointed out during the Q&A period session of the event, many students struggle with basic computer and internet literacy. It seems those that are best positioned to take advantage of the “edupunk” perspective, might just be those who are likely to attend a four-year residential college or university anyway.

That’s not to take away from students who have used the system—or lack thereof—that Kamenetz presents to find success. After all, learning on your own takes a huge amount of discipline and passion for the subject area you are pursuing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the solution to education may not lie in the idea of traditional lectures by professors and exams. But how we get to that decentralized kind of learning will be a very interesting journey.

I find this compelling. Motivation is a major barrier to education. But we may be able to make considerable progress in that area simultaneously, as I briefly mentioned here. Yglesias describes his desire to learn more math, but his inability to motivate himself to do it. That motivation is a barrier even to such a clearly highly motivated person speaks to the seriousness of the issue. The fact is, we’re learning more and more about how motivation works (at least if my current reading list is any indication). So I’m optimistic that we can crack this. And if we can, and can also deal with the accreditation issue, we’ll be able to launch a revolution in education.

(FWIW, I’ve dabbled in various learning opportunities through Carnegie Mellon’s OLI, other open courseware offerings, and Khan Academy.)

UPDATE: Kevin Drum adds:

Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you’re in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don’t go to class and don’t do the homework, but lots do. But if you’re studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it’s a level that, frankly, most of us just aren’t capable of.

What struck me about this is the fact that college isn’t really all that great of a commitment advice. I, for one, did not always feel obligated to go to class. And though it basically works the way Drum describes it, from a motivational standpoint I think it’s a pretty low bar to clear. Plenty of college students are not well motivated. Plenty of students drop out. Merely beginning to focus on motivation as a major piece of the education puzzle could potentially produce sizable gains.

UPDATE 2: Speaking of…

IQ and Motivation

So one of the most interesting items I came across while looking into the concept of intelligence was this blog post by intelligence scholar Earl Hunt. Says Hunt:

The statistics are pretty clear. Tests of general cognitive ability are by far the best tests for predicting performance in both academia and the workplace. If a job is cognitively demanding, the correlation between test performance and job performance will be somewhere in the .40-.55 range. This is about twice as high as any tests of personality or motivation

…BUT it’s also pretty clear that people do not believe this. Over and over, I read and hear statements like “Personality is much more important than intelligence” or “Motivation is the important thing.” or ”
I knew someone who had real good (bad) test scores and they did as real bad (good) job.”…

When people reason about things, their personal experiences have much more weight than abstract statistics. AND, second point, we live in a cognitively segregated society. (The reason is at least partly because we live in an educationally segregated society.) To see what I mean, ask yourself how many of your friends…people you deal with at least once a week, and in a setting that is not restricted to formal exchanges, like a passenger-bus driver exchange, have markedly different educational backgrounds than you do?. I would bet that not very many do. (This is not quite so much the case if you are in the military, but that’s  a special situation.)

Put these two tendencies together, and you see that most people do not get to observe the problem solving behaviors of people whose intelligence differs very much from their own. This is certainly true of professionals, college professors, executives, etc….The people who do the talking. Because the typical person sees only a small bit of the range of intelligence that is actually out there, the importance of intelligence…in the big picture, in the whole population just isn’t appreciated.

So IQ matters more than we realize, and more than motivation and personality in the grand scheme of things, at least according to Hunt.

And yet here’s a post via Kevin Drum & Tyler Cowen:

On IQ tests, a single standard deviation equals 15 points. So if this research is right, giving people actual incentives to do well on IQ tests (money, for example) has the following effect:

  • Those with low IQs scored 14 points higher.
  • Those with high IQs scored 4 points higher.

In other words, giving people an incentive to do well collapsed the gap between high and low by ten points — and bigger incentives created even bigger effects. These results are based on a meta-analysis of previous studies, not on new research, and metastudies are notoriously tricky to do properly. So take this with the usual grain of salt until these results get replicated elsewhere.

So IQ may be a better predictor than motivation, but the latter informs the former. I wonder what Hunt’s response would be…

Markets and Networks

Several weeks ago Steven Johnson took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to defend his excellent new book on innovation and to declare “I am not a Communist.”  The question of possible communist sympathies was raised, apparently, on a World Network imagebook tour, in reference to his support of what he dubs “fourth quadrant” innovation.  The “fourth quadrant” refers to innovations produced by networked non-market actors, a category including open-source software, among other things, which Johnson argues has an unparalleled track record in fostering breakthroughs.

Does that make him a communist?  He doesn’t think so:

the problem is that we don’t have a word that does justice to those of us who believe in the generative power of the fourth quadrant… The choice shouldn’t be between decentralized markets and command-and-control states.

And he’s right.  The rise of the web has exposed the market-state dichotomy as transparently inadequate.  Projects like Linux and Wikipedia hint at the emergence existence of a very different model of economic organization that seemingly fits neither category.

It is a model we are only beginning to understand, and yet in many ways it challenges some of our core beliefs about how to organize a society.  In the contest between markets and central planning, the market has been largely (and largely justifiably) ascendant.  Yet the lessons of its ascendancy are subtly and not-so-subtly contradicted by the ways in which we organize, communicate and produce information online.

To understand how, we have to temporarily return to the battle between market and state.  In The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig writes:

Over the past hundred years, much of the heat in political argument has been about which system for controlling resources – the state or the market – works best.  That war is over.  For most resources, most of the time, the market trumps the state.  There are exceptions, of course, and dissenters still.  But if the twentieth century taught us one lesson, it is the dominance of private over state ordering.*

Why?  That is, of course, a question fit for a lifetime of inquiry.  But let me take a stab at summing it up: because humans are selfish and stupid.


Markets motivate us by aligning incentives.  We are more likely to exert effort when doing so directly benefits us.  A considerable portion of social science revolves around this tenet, which might be expressed short-hand as Most of us are self-interested most of the time.  We often tend to simplify even further by treating selfishness as profit maximization.  As Harvard’s Yochai Benkler explains it in his masterpiece The Wealth of Networks:

Much of economics achieves analytic tractability by adopting a very simple model of human motivation… Adding more of something people want, like money, to any given interaction will, all things considered, make that interaction more desirable to rational people.  While simplistic, this highly tractable model of human motivation has enabled policy prescriptions that have proven far more productive than prescriptions that depended on other models of human motivation — such as assuming that benign administrators will be motivated to serve their people, or that individuals will undertake self-sacrifice for the good of the nation or the commune. (pg. 92)


Markets prevail over central planning in large part due to the stupidity cognitive constraints of central planners.  We can only gather and process so much information.  Which means our actions have unforeseen consequences, the future is hard to predict, etc.  Here I’ll lean on Cass Sunstein channelling Hayek in his book Infotopia:

Hayek claims that the great advantage of prices is that they aggregate both the information and the tastes of numerous people, incorporating far more material than could possibly be assembled by any central planner or board… For Hayek, the key economics question is how to incorporate that unorganized and dispersed knowledge.  That problem cannot possibly be solved by any particular person or board.  Central planners cannot have access to all of the knowledge held by particular people.  Taken as a whole, the knowledge held by those people is far greater than that held by even the most well-chosen experts. (pg. 119)

Similarly, in his 1977 book “Politics and Markets”, political scientist Charles Lindblom describes the “key difference” between markets and central planning as “the role of intellect in social organization” with “on the one side, a confident distinctive view of man using his intelligence in social organization [central planning]; on the other side, a skeptical view of his capacity [markets].” (pg. 248)

The Networked Information Economy

At the macro level markets continue to maintain these advantages over planning.  But is there another game in town?  What we see on the web challenges us to at least reconsider the unassailability of markets, both with respect to motivation and information.  Asks Benkler:

Why can fifty thousand volunteers successfully coauthor Wikipedia… and then turn around and give it away for free?  Why do 4.5 million volunteers contribute their leftover computer cycles to create the most powerful supercomputer on Earth, SETI@Home?

Econ 101 has a hard time answering.  The high profile success of these and other projects forces us to remember that the simplistic model of human motivation, central as it is to our faith in markets, was never universally true.  Further, they invite us to revisit the usefulness of such an assumption, and to strive for a more complete model of human motivation.  We create and produce for any number of reasons beyond profit, including altruism, status, or even – in a world of low transaction costs – boredom.

Just as the market’s claim to dominance in motivating us is starting to be challenged, some are revisiting its dominance in aggregating information.  Sunstein explores the subject in Infotopia and highlights increasing efforts to aggregate human preferences online, including Amazon and Netflix.  If it’s obvious that we are doing better and better at aggregating information thanks to the Net, it’s less obvious how this might challenge the role of the market.

Imagine that Netflix has a small, set number of a rare movie to rent, and that it’s in high demand.  Who should get it first?  Auction the privilege off to the highest bidder, responds the free market advocate.  And, particularly in a scenario where customers have equal wealth at their disposal, this method has a lot to recommend it.  The market is incredibly efficient at allocating resources under ideal settings.  Tremendous gains in human welfare have been predicated on this fact.  But Netflix is developing sophisticated algorithms to use your preferences for movies you’ve seen to predict what movies you’ll like.  Is it so hard to believe that some day in the future an algorithm could – given the aim of maximizing viewer enjoyment – “beat the market” in determining how to distribute the movie?

We are undoubtedly in the early stages of understanding what motivates us to collaborate online (and off), and probably even less far along in our efforts to manage and make useful the wealth of information online, including identifying and aggregating our preferences.  I’ve been purposefully vague here in describing the new model I’m discussing.  Better defining that model will be the topic of a future post.

My argument here is simply that our increasingly connected world – what Benkler calls the “networked information economy” – invites us to question some of the most basic premises that have led us to organize our society around the market.  It would be foolish to let those premises, and the new models that challenge them, go unexamined.

*Lessig is explicit that he is talking about consumption, not production.  It’s a useful distinction, however the two are more related than he seems to admit in this instance.
**In borrowing Lessig’s words here I don’t mean to subscribe to any aggressively free-market worldview.  The choice between a centrally planned economy and a mostly privately organized one may be settled.  The battle over where to draw the lines in the mixed economy rages on.