>> Kirsten Wiley: Good morning and welcome. My... here today to introduce and welcome John Tierney and Roy...

>> Kirsten Wiley: Good morning and welcome. My name is Kirsten Wiley and I am
here today to introduce and welcome John Tierney and Roy Baumeister who are visiting
us as part of the Microsoft Research Visiting Speaker Series. John and Roy are here
today to discuss their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
You may have noticed that eating and sleeping or lack thereof have dramatic effects on
your willpower and your self-control. With the right tools, willpower can be built and
conserved for crucial moments. Roy received his PhD from Princeton and is the head of
social psychology at Florida State University. This year he will receive the Jack Block
award for distinguished contributions to personality psychology. Willpower is his 28th
John Tierney writes the Findings science column for the New York Times. His science
writing has won awards and he is a frequent guest on national radio and television
programs. He is the author of The Best Case Scenario Handbook and co-author of the
comic novel, God is My Broker. Please join me in welcoming them to Microsoft. Thank
>> John Tierney: Thank you very much. I am John and this is Roy. In a minute I am
going to ask Roy about his research, but first I just wanted to give a brief introduction
here and to thank all of you for coming here during your lunch hour. It takes willpower
to come to a talk about willpower [laughter]. I don't think Charlie Sheen spends his lunch
hours doing this [laughter]. That's just my guess. But even though all of you obviously
possess this virtue, I would bet that most of you think that you don't have enough. Now
if you ask people to name their greatest strengths, they often credit themselves with
honesty, with kindness, humor, creativity, bravery. And researchers have done this to
more than a million people around the world. But they will credit themselves even with
modesty but not with self-control. It came in dead last among the virtues that were
studied in the survey. And of the two dozen character strengths, self-control was the one
that people were least likely to recognize in themselves. And conversely, if you ask
people about their failings in the survey, the lack of self-control is at the top of the list.
I understand this feeling completely. I am a lifelong procrastinator. In college I spent my
summers working on overdue term papers and in two decades of writing columns for
magazines and newspapers, I never turned one in early. I know it's hard for you to
believe in the software business that anyone doesn't meet a deadline, but it actually
happens in journalism sometimes. But the amazing thing to me about this project with
Roy is that we turned in this manuscript two months ahead of time, and I am afraid that
the Authors Guild is going to throw us out for doing that. Now I give full credit to Roy
and his research in the strategies that we drew from this. He has found that it is possible
to build willpower and that building willpower is more important today than ever. We
think that it is psychology's best hope for improving people's lives and for creating a
better society. The more the researchers study willpower, the more central it becomes to
understanding why some people thrive and why some people don't. However you define
success, a happy family, good friends, satisfying career, robust health, financial security,
the freedom to pursue your passions, it tends to be accompanied by two qualities. When
psychologists isolate the factors that predict positive outcomes in life, they consistently
find two traits, intelligence and self-control. Now so far they haven't figured out much to
do with intelligence, but they have discovered or at least rediscovered how to improve
And I say rediscovered because our ancestors made some pretty shrewd guesses about
this. In the Victorian area that's where our notion of willpower as a muscle comes from.
But then during the 20th century a lot of this sense was lost. People began to doubt that
willpower existed, that there was even such a thing as free will and it became
unfashionable both in academia and in popular culture to promote this old Victorian idea
of willpower. And I discovered this a few years ago myself. I was having dinner with a
friend, a fellow writer Chris Buckley, the comic novelist, and we were talking about the
thing that serious writers always talk about when they get together, which is money, and
why we needed more of it. And we were bemoaning the fact that the bestseller list there
were all of these spiritual and financial get rich quick books, these self-help books were
all at the top of the bestseller list and we thought well, why don't we try to write one and
we will combine them both. It will be spiritual self-help and financial self-help, and we
called it God is My Broker. The subtitle was A Monk Tycoon Reveals the 7 ½ Laws of
Spiritual and Financial Growth. It is about this monastery that becomes fabulously rich
and corrupt. They spend a fortune renovating the place. They bring in an interior
decorator from downtown Manhattan who explains the look he is after for the monks. He
says we want it to say poverty, but we don't want to say cheap [laughter].
And then along the way they discover the 7 1/2 laws of spiritual and financial growth
such as God loves the poor, but that doesn't mean you have to fly coach [laughter]. And
another law is simply money is God's way of saying thanks. And my favorite law is as
long as God knows the truth, it doesn't matter what you tell your customers [laughter].
While writing this spoof of self-help books I had to go back and read the history of this
genre and I noticed this is weird sort of backward evolution it seemed to me. If you went
back to the 19th century there was this huge international bestseller called Self-help, by
an Englishman. He taught the lesson that genius was patience and persistence explains
success. Ben Franklin has said the same thing. But then in the 20th century you got into
all these self-help books promoting very quick and easy ways to success. How to Win
Friends and Influence People, The Power of Positive Thinking. There was a new slogan,
believe it, achieve it.
Now as I read them I kept wondering what has gone wrong? Why do the old ones seem
more useful than the new ones? And I didn't really know what to make of this in the
social sciences until I started writing a science column for the New York Times, and I
had a lucky break. I went to the big meeting for social psychologists which that year was
in Memphis. It occurred to me going to this meeting that it would be fun to go out and
have a social psychologist analyze the people going to Graceland. And I asked Ben
Kerry who covers social sciences for The Times, you know, who would you suggest?
Who might be fun to go to Graceland with? And he was saying Graceland; you would
really have to have somebody with a very interesting mind for that. Then he paused for
about a second and he said Roy Baumeister is your man.
So in a word I never actually got to Graceland that year. We were too busy doing other
stuff. But we did start talking and I discovered that he had gone on his own on evolution
and thinking about self-control and willpower, and when he started his career in the
1970s in Princeton, psychologist were focusing not so much of self-control but on selfesteem, and Roy was an early leader in that research. And they did show that people with
more self-esteem tended to be more successful. But then Roy and others found out that
that is not the causative link. It turns out that self-esteem didn't lead to success; rather
that success leads to self-esteem.
And then Roy noticed something that did lead to success, self-control. He developed a
scale and personality test for measuring self-control and it turned out that this was the
only personality trait of the dozens studied that predicted a college student's grade point
average better than chance. Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college
grades than the students IQ or SAT score. So Roy began trying to understand the
mysteries of self-control and I will ask Roy to tell you what he found in the lab.
>> Roy Baumeister: One thing we found was that self-control seems to operate like a
muscle. For one thing it gets tired when you use it, so you think you might think of it as
a stable aspect of character that you have more or less self-control, but no, the amount
you have fluctuates just like your muscular strength. It is a muscle that you are using all
of the time, all day. We just finished a study where people wore beepers and we tracked
them around during the day and they reported on were they were being tempted and did
they want this or that and are they acting on it and so on. And yes it does fluctuate and
indeed what seems to happen, and we found it over and over in our first set of lab studies
was that after exerting self-control on one thing, if you go onto another demand for selfcontrol, you will be less effective of it, just like a muscle gets tired. So this happens over
and over across the course of the day.
The things we found perhaps more recently--well first of all, to pursue the muscle
analogy, yes it, it gets tired when you use it, but as you exercise it, it gets stronger over
time, until as John may have suggested there, intelligence and self-control are the two
traits psychology knows that really predict success across a broad range of spheres, but
we haven't been able to produce lasting increases in intelligence. Self-control, however,
you can produce improvements even in adulthood by exercising it regularly. So that is
one great way for psychology to produce benefits to people through society. Also when
you see these drop-offs, it is not like the muscle is completely exhausted. Like an athlete
playing a big game, when you start to get a little bit tired, you automatically start
conserving your remaining energy, so even just a few minutes of self-control are enough
to produce a little bit of a decrement in subsequent performance.
One of our early studies that caught people's attention was we had people skip a meal
before--in psychology you always have to tell them that you are studying one thing and
then study something else, because if you tell them exactly what you are studying, they
get kind of weird about that. So we told them that it was an experiment on their memory
for taste. They came to the experiment having skipped lunch or not having eaten for
three or four hours, so basically they're hungry and then we set up a microwave oven in
the laboratory, baked chocolate chip cookies there and you know how that blows out the
smell, so the laboratory just smelled this wonderful smell of freshly baked chocolate. So
they come in; they are hungry, they smell this delicious smell and then we seat them in
table. There is a stack of these cookies and chocolates and all these other things; also on
the table there is a bowl of radishes and in one conditional experiment we tell them, well
you have been assigned to the radish condition. So your task is going to be to eat
radishes and taste them and basically keep your hands off the chocolates there. They are
for other people in the experiment.
Then we left them alone for a few minutes to maximize the temptation, and of course we
couldn't trust them, so we secretly observed them to see what they did and yeah, they
were tempted, lots of longing glances towards the chocolate. People would pick them up
and sniff them and put them back. People would drop them on the floor and put them
back, but nobody bit into the forbidden food, and they all managed to eat a radish or two.
Then we had a couple of other conditions in the experiment. We had one where they ate
the chocolates not the radishes and one where there was no food at all. But the ones we
were interested were the ones that had to sit there smelling those chocolates and seeing
those chocolates and wanting those chocolate chip cookies but instead making
themselves eat those stupid old radishes.
And then borrowing they procedure from stress research, we took a different road and
gave them difficult, actually unsolvable puzzles to see how long do they keep trying and
keep going before they give up. And it turns out 5 minutes of resisting the temptation of
the cookies took 10 minutes off how long they would persevere and keep trying. They
were much easier ready to just give up on the difficult puzzles simply because they had
exerted a little bit of self-control. By no means were they exhausted, but again, like a
muscle that starts to get tired, you start to conserve it. So that is one point that shows that
it works like a muscle.
Now another thing that we discovered more recently is that other things beyond selfcontrol use it. And this may be particularly interesting to this group. We are finding ties
to creativity, to decision-making, to even intelligent thought. We have had people take
intelligence tests. As you know there are a couple of kinds of thinking. The cognitive
psychologists distinguish basically between the automatic and controlled, so in terms of
IQ tests there will be questions where you have to figure out a reasoning problem, and
there will be other items like they will ask you basic questions like how many people in
the Senate, or give them a vocabulary test. And you think well what does vocabulary
have to do--it is not hard to know a vocabulary word just knowing what dilatory means,
does that really matter? But in fact, smart people know more words than dumb people so
it works as a valid test.
Now what happens if you have exerted self-control, you resist temptation for radishes or
we have all sorts of procedures. You watch a funny movie and you try not to laugh at it.
Or you squeeze a handgrip or any kind of exerting control over your behavior, and then
we go in after it's done, take an IQ test. The vocabulary is intact. All of the simple,
automatic thinking is intact. But on their reasoning, on their ability to think in a fluid
intelligent logical way, that is significantly compromised and even by fairly small
amount. So there may be, understanding that these things are tied together, how smart
you are will fluctuate too as a function of how much willpower that you have.
And we found that making decisions, making choices also depletes the same resource. In
one study we had people look at consumer products either in control condition they just
rated, have you used this product in the last six months? Does it look good to you and
things like that? In the crucial condition, however, we gave them two at a time and said
which one would you rather have, a red T-shirt or blue T-shirt, vanilla scented candle or
almond scented candle. We would make a bunch of these choices and then we gave them
one of the classic tests of self-control which is how long can you hold your hand in ice
water which is 1°, 33 or 34°F, so it is unpleasant and your hand wants to pull out, so you
have to use self-control to do it. And their persistence in holding their hand in the water
dropped by half as a result of making choices, as opposed to looking at all of the same
products and thinking about the same products. So making decisions will use up that
same… Sometimes people have an intuitive sense that you have a limited amount of selfcontrol and you resist temptations and maybe you get fried or maybe you study and you
get tired or something, but they don't seem to have any idea intuitively that making
choices as in making decisions is going to deplete and interfere with their willpower and
it kind of sheds new light on all of these political scandals where you see people and you
say how could they throw away their career as a important politician with a great
leadership role in society or in the world? How could they jeopardize it on tweeting
pictures of their genitals or whatever?
Well, you have to understand though that making decisions is going to use up their
willpower and so there will be times when there self-control is lower than it normally is.
It is not that we somehow elect all of these degenerates to office, but, well, maybe we do,
but [laughter] but in general these are perhaps ordinary people, not particularly better or
worse than anybody else, but yes, their self-control will be depleted. There was a study
that came out just before finishing the book on judges making parole decisions. And, you
know, the easy thing for the judge to do is just to send them back to prison because there
is a risk for the judge if he releases the convict out he commits another crime, it will
reflect badly on the judge. And you're looking at the odds of a guy getting parole. Well
if it comes to the parole board when the judges are fresh early in the morning and rested,
they have a pretty good chance of parole, but as the day wears on and the judges are
getting tired making one decision after another, they are more likely to say just send them
back to the slammer. Huge drops in the likelihood and it is just the luck of the draw of
when you come up there.
So understand that all of these things are tied in together, and then by accident we
discovered too that this is not just a metaphor. This energy that you use, the strength that
you have is really tied into the basic body's energy. We were doing an experiment where
and people sometimes ask well, if resisting temptation depletes your willpower, does
giving in to temptation, will that may just make you stronger? This is an appealing
theory. We call it the Mardi Gras theory because [laughter] you go to Mardi Gras you get
ready for Lent, and you know this would be cool if it worked, and a grad student brought
it, I said I don't really see how that would work, but go ahead and try it. And so he tried
it and we had people first exert self-control and then give them a second test unrelated to
it, and in between some of them were given a nice dish of ice cream to eat. Well, they
get to indulge and will this improve, and it actually did improve their self-control
afterwards. The catch though is that one of the control conditions we gave them
something else to eat that didn't taste good at all. It was, instead of ice cream, it was a
milkshake mixed with half-and-half and so it was just kind of this large blob of yuck
dairy milky stuff and people didn't like it. They rated it worse than the other control
condition where they were sitting around reading out of date technical magazines
So they didn't like that, but that also improved their self-control. So my grad student
came into my office and said well, the study didn't work and it was a control condition
that messed it up. And I said wait a minute, something is happening here. And we
started to think it looked like eating really restored their energy and their ability to exert
self-control, and as I said we talked about this as a metaphor, but could it really just be
energy in the basic biological sense? These are the calories that your body uses and so
we started reading up about these things and we learned about glucose, which is a
chemical in your bloodstream that takes the energy from the food that you take in and
carries it around to your muscles and your organs and also to your brain. The
neurotransmitters that allow the brain cells to work and fire and communicate with each
other, these are made from glucose. So we learned about glucose and nutritionists had
collected all kinds of data without much of a theory or a plan showing that yes there are
all kinds of effects that really look like self-control deficits when people either
experimentally or through health problems or whatever have disruptions in glucose.
They found things like there are studies of juvenile delinquents who had just been
arrested and their glucose was exceptionally low. Well maybe their glucose was
exceptionally low and that's why they had a loss of self-control and committed some
crime and got caught and that's why they got into trouble.
There are nicely controlled studies with children having breakfast where they tell the
whole class nobody eat breakfast. And then they come in and randomly assign half the
kids to get breakfast and the other kids not. Well, the ones that got breakfast, well they
learn more and they behave better than the others and then at 1030 when everybody gets
a snack, then the differences disappear. And there are all sorts of other things tied into
diabetes and other sorts of things looking at glucose.
So we started doing lab studies, yeah, the glucose in your blood stream seems, first of all,
exerting self-control produced drops in blood glucose levels. Things like, we had people
talk about things like affirmative action and racial profiling; those are sensitive topics
either with a member of their own race or a member of a different race, because talking
about these topics with members of other races, the study showed that uses self-control,
because it's kind of sensitive and you have to watch what you say and worry about giving
offense. Talking about them with somebody of your own race the glucose is the same
after as before, but talking about them to somebody of a different race, glucose was
significantly lower afterwards, so something was going on. The brain was working a lot
harder, using up a lot more of the fuel exerting self-control to make sure that you just
didn't say the wrong thing. And then glucose levels predicted self-control performance
and then we tried manipulating things.
We have one manipulation where we give people a glass of lemonade, either diet or
regular. We mix it with either sugar or Splenda, and you can do it with a nice double
blind so the person comes in, the experimenter doesn't know what's in the lemonade and
the subject doesn't know either. They just get a glass of lemonade. It was very nice. We
were in the South. It was hot; people would just suck it right down. And it tastes
perfectly well either way. But the one gives you a big replenishment of glucose and the
other doesn't. And then we deplete their energy and give them a test of self-control, well
the ones who got sugar, they are suddenly doing well again. The ones who got Splenda
in their lemonade, they are still doing badly. Now I am not unmindful of the irony of
giving people sugar to improve their self-control, because most people want to use selfcontrol to resist sugar. I should say don't try this at home [laughter]. It would actually
work just fine with other kinds of food, lean protein, whatever, meat, but we used sugar
in the laboratory because it is fast acting and you only have people short time in the
But yes, it seems that keeping your glucose up will help compensate after you made a lot
of choices or exerted self-control and so your performance would tend to slip. You can
improve it, and going back to that study with the judges, they found that if you come up
for parole just before lunch, your chances were I think 15%, that's when I was six or
seven, whereas right after lunch, you know next in the queue right after lunch, two thirds
of them got parole. It is just somehow the judges got their glucose restored and suddenly
were willing to think harder and take a look and basically the same resume in terms of
record in prison and crime and everything, but just they were much more willing to take a
chance and do the difficult thing.
>> John Tierney: And that's a great case for having the cobbler out here [laughter]. In
fact I had some right before we came in, but there are lots of other strategies that don't
involve quick intake of sugar for dealing with self-control. And we talk about these in
the book. It is based on studies that Roy has done, and one of the really surprising studies
was when they sent college students, they did a self-control test in the lab and then Roy
sent him home for the week and said just sit up straight, practice sitting up straight.
Whenever you think of it, work on your posture, and they would come back a week later
and their self-control improved not just in their posture but in all these other things. They
have strengthened the muscle.
>> Roy Baumeister: Yeah, that is a key point John, that it's one resource and it is used
for everything. So any kind of exercise that you do will improve it for anything else in
our lab has found that and other labs have found that too. So you work on your posture
and your posture will be better after a while but it is not just that. It improves your
capacity to change yourself. It makes you a stronger person; and so on lab tests that have
nothing to do with posture you do better.
>> John Tierney: And we talk about other strategies and Roy has done lots of other
experiments. But we've been talking for a while and I think that we would be glad to take
questions from folks about the research or about strategies or anything you would like.
Any questions about willpower or self-control or how to get software projects done on
time [laughter]?
>> Roy Baumeister: Yes?
>>: You mentioned that reasoning and problem solving puzzles would drain someone's
ability to exercise self-control, does that also help them to develop their self-control or is
it just…
>> Roy Baumeister: Yes. It is just like a muscle. The short-term effect is that I get tired
and do worse, so spending a hard day thinking really hard, maybe that night you'll be a
little more crabby with your partner or a little more likely to eat all of the M&Ms or
something like that, but as you do this over and over again, in the long run you will get
stronger and improve your capability at it. Yes?
>>: Are all forms of self-control against all impulses the same or does it vary like for the
type of impulse? Like trying to control aggression versus trying to stay awake?
>> Roy Baumeister: It is the same capacity for control. Different people have different
impulses. I mean one of the puzzlers in self-control is gender differences. As you may
know Sigmund Freud said he thought the superego drives from castration anxiety and he
said well, women don't have a penis, so their self-control is going to be weaker. They
have less of a--but all of the data show that women are less likely to do all the self-control
problems, are less likely to get into fights or sexual misdeeds or drugs and stuff like that.
So which way does it go?
But on the gender-neutral tests, it looks like men and women do about the same, but the
difference is men and women have about the same capacity for self-control, but men
especially like adolescent boys and so on have stronger impulses for a lot of these things
and so the control is worse. By the same token, moving from childhood into adolescence,
the problem is they've learned to control themselves to a certain level as children and they
take that same self control and suddenly their impulses are a lot stronger, and so the
behavior gets a lot worse. That is why people occasionally complain about teenagers
[laughter]. But they are operating with a child's amount of self-control on an adult’s kind
of impulses. So the impulses vary in strength, but it is the one capacity that you are using
for all different things. Yes?
>>: Most of us sitting here describing have been around individuals and willpower. Is
there any research on groups, the impact on groups either for or against willpower or the
willpower of groups or is it…
>> Roy Baumeister: No. There is not. In terms of grouping, no there is not. There is
stuff about, people can work together and can influence each other. Indeed, other than
pure willpower, there are things that you can do to improve self-control and social
pressure is a good one. So just as a simple example, people try to quit smoking, if people
try themselves, say oh I am going to quit smoking and don't tell anybody, well they can
be a little bit successful, but if they tell all their friends they're going to quit smoking,
they might do a bit better because it is more of an embarrassment and things like that. So
social factors play into it, and indeed there is evidence that people quitting smoking is
contagious. People do it when their friends and neighbors do it. Obesity and dieting, the
same sorts of things; people gain and lose in groups, so there are social influences there,
but the basic idea that could one football team have better willpower than another football
team, I don't know of any kind of research on that. It would be interesting to look at.
>>: [inaudible] your examples of that willpower seem to be around a kind of selfrestraint. Isn't there a form of willpower that is more commitment oriented or is more
>> Roy Baumeister: Restraint is what people tend to think of, but self-control for which
willpower is just one of the key tools, is just a matter of altering yourself. In the research
they often use the term self regulation. I like the term regulation because it means
change, but not just any change; it means change towards a particular idea. So when the
government has regulations for how to make buildings or how to make sausages or
whatever, it doesn't just say do them differently; it says they have to be made in a certain
manner with these ingredients or windows in every room, or whatever regulations they
make. So you are changing yourself. When I first surveyed the literature on self-control
there were four main domains. There is controlling your thoughts, that is like trying to
concentrate, trying to reach a certain conclusion, trying to shut that annoying song out of
your mind, trying to forget about your stupid ex girlfriend or boyfriend, all of those
things. Controlling your emotions, as in, well that can be either increasing or decreasing
an emotion or prolonging an emotion. Sometimes you try to stay angry long enough to
make your case when you have to wait your turn to complain, you know, waiting in line
for the cable company to get to you as you try to sustain your indignation.
Any sort of regulating of your emotional state. Then there is impulse control which can
be, it is mostly restraining, but it could be, you use self-control to drag yourself out of bed
in the morning is a positive thing, or for another military thing to get yourself to walk
toward people who are shooting at you. That is not natural. And so it takes a fair amount
of self-control to do it. So that is the third, and last would be performance regulations, so
you're trying not to choke under pressure. You're trying to do your best, try to persist in
the face of failure, speed, accuracy trade-offs and so on. There might be a couple of other
things like a like managing your life and figuring out how to--but those are the main four,
thoughts, feelings, impulses and performance. And again, it is one stock of willpower
that applies to all of them. Now that doesn't mean that people are equally good at all of
them. You have a limited resource and so people budget it. So some people get all of
their work done on time, but have trouble finding time to get a haircut or something like
that. Indeed one of the early studies they were trying to develop a scale for this and a
Stanford student was trying to develop something and he said well, what would a student
with good self-control due? He will turn in all of his assignments on time; he will change
his socks every day, and, you know, he made a list and they made this questionnaire,
gave it to all the students at Stanford and well, getting your work done on time and
changing your socks every day were correlated minus point 6; apparently they could do
one or the other [laughter].
>> John Tierney: Especially during exam time [laughter].
>> Roy Baumeister: [laughter] yeah, especially during exam time. There are some other
recent papers that students during exam time everything else goes to hell, because they
are using their willpower to try to complete the work that they should have been doing all
semester or just try to maximize their performance and concentrate, and so they stop
washing their hair. They go back to smoking more; they start eating badly. Their
emotional control gets down and they get crabby and anxious and all of these things. So
there is this whole general degeneration of behavior on students around exam time, but
it's because you have a limited resource. So it's like I said, it is one thing that is used for
all of the different things, but it is a limited resource that you budget and you put it on
what is important.
>> John Tierney: One of the big strategies is--we've talked about building this willpower
muscle and doing these exercises, but some of Roy's really recent research has shown that
paradoxically that people that score highest in self-control actually use it less during the
day. And these are studies following people when they are exerting it, and that is because
people use their self-control not to just resist one temptation after another, but they set up
their lives so they don't have to use that. They don't walk by the bakery; they don't put
things off till the last minute. They don't go to all-you-can-eat buffets, and that way they
conserve their willpower so they have it when emergencies come up. So they rely on
habits instead of these conscious decisions and efforts of will. It is much easier to
schedule a workout with a friend three days a week, instead of trying to decide every day
whether to make yourself exercise or not.
>> Roy Baumeister: And John that is willpower too. It is just that you are using it to
control your habits, and that seems to be the more important and productive way to use it.
We think of willpower I was Ulysses on the deck resisting the siren's call and debating
whether to steer his ship onto the rocks or pull away or not, but actually the person with
good self-control went home by a different route, and didn't get exposed to the
temptation. And that is it. In this beeper study that I mentioned where people wear
beepers. Okay people with high self control will just resist more temptations because
people will record how often they resist a temptation. But they actually resisted less. But
we also found that they were much less likely to be exposed to problematic sorts of
desires, so again, creating good habits, willpower, if you think about it, dieting is
everybody's favorite example. But there's just a huge meta-analysis that combined a
large number of studies and trades off control helps a little bit with dieting and stuff like
that, but it has much bigger effects on work and school performance, because that is
something where setting up good habits is something that people can do. So using your
willpower for that, we call it in the book playing offense rather than defense. Don't wait
until you're in a crisis and use your willpower to bail yourself out; instead use it to set life
up so you don't have as many crises.
>> John Tierney: Right. Something else to do, researchers have also done this too, the
first thing you think about when the subject of self-control and willpower comes up is
dieting. And yet that is really one of the least things correlating with willpower, that selfcontrol and willpower do not correlate that well with the ability to lose weight, and that is
because dieting is such a singularly hard thing to do and part of it is this glucose
connection, that you need--there is this Catch-22, that in order to diet you need willpower
and in order to have willpower, you need to eat. So there is this contradiction there. And
that is why you have people who have phenomenally good self-control on everything
else, have a hard time losing weight. It is really, it is the stereotype people think of using
self-control, but it is actually kind of the least representative example of how you use it in
your life.
>>: [inaudible] so far that it is very difficult to separate self-control from [inaudible].
What you talk about is willpower is something [inaudible] there is a brain center that
operates on. In all of these experiments did you just replace physical exercise or some
other form of fatigue, would it all [inaudible] willpower [inaudible] and how do you
actually separate willpower from any other kind of fatigue? I mean exerting willpower or
any other kind of just getting tired?
>> Roy Baumeister: Okay. Separating willpower from just getting tired, you mean
separating the low willpower problems from that?
>>: [inaudible] you're talking about the resource and it’s depleted, it could be just low
levels of energy that you are depleting.
>> Roy Baumeister: There is some connection to it. You can have a lot of energy and
have poor self-control. That is sort of the stereotype of the kids with attention deficit
disorder who are bouncing off the wall, so energy alone is not enough. Now in terms of
low energy, well, yeah, the results aren't as clear on this. You think that just being
physically tired should impair everything else, and there are some connections like that
but just a simple--also the depletion effect, where the self-control starts to go bad, that
happens long before people feel physically tired, so I don't know yet all of the tie-ins
there and our lab and other labs are working on these tie-ins, but things like heart rate
variability is connected to self-control. Having a more variable heart rate seems to be
associated with good self-control and that when the heart rate gets more uniform for some
reason… And so we don't know exactly how that works but that is an important thing too.
There are other tie-ins. So I would say when you are using up a lot of your physical
energy, yes, that is probably going to take away from your willpower, but you will see
willpower changes and self-control changes long before you have any sense of physical
exhaustion or exertion.
Let me mention one more thing, your immune system is a highly variable, but sometimes
a very intense user of glucose, so when you are fighting off a cold, you know, those
findings that say when you have a cold, driving there is worse than driving drunk in terms
of your impairment. That is a sign in itself that self-control is impaired than too. We
have gotten in the laboratory one sign that somebody might be starting to get sick is that
their self-control starts to break down. They get more irritable, more bothered by things
and it is long before they have any other symptom or any feeling of being bad, but what
happens when you really do start to get sick, the people who fight it off are the ones that
stop doing everything and go and sleep, because that allows your body to take all of its
energy and put it into fighting off the disease, and you can bounce back and be healthy if
you don't have to think of I have to go to this meeting and finish this thing. But it is often
more efficient in the long run just to take the day off, sleep it away and allow the immune
system to work, and then you could get back there, because again, it is just the same basic
glucose that you use for all of these things that is used for disease fighting.
>>: How about just reading before [inaudible] been tempted to lose self-control?
>> Roy Baumeister: Did you say reading or eating?
>>: Reading just some kind of event or effort that [inaudible].
>> John Tierney: Well, there are various experiments for decision fatigue where they
would have people; I mean we have already talked about some of them. There are other
ones where they had to go through the process. They were choosing a computer to buy
and they would go through all of the process of reading about them and doing it, but the
people that actually had to choose exactly which feature, they showed a depletion,
whereas the other ones didn't. And there has been other things were researchers spent a
lot of time trying to figure out what are the physical symptoms of ego depletion. How do
you know when you are…? And it has been surprisingly difficult. There isn't one simple
thing you feel. The way you feel when you're tired, you know you're tired. But ego
depletion doesn't manifest itself in any one thing; it's more that things in general seem to
affect you more. Good things seem better; bad things are more irritating, but it isn't a
very sharp symptom that way.
>> Roy Baumeister: Yeah, reading is an interesting one because it takes some degree of
controlling your attention. It is one of the arguments why it is better for kids to read
books than to watch TV and so on. But it is certainly not as strenuous as say doing math
in your head or something like that, so I would guess that you would have a little bit of
use of willpower and glucose and energy for just reading. And it depends too on what
you're reading. Do you have to force yourself to keep doing it? Say reading Kant or
reading your statistics book is probably going to deplete your energy. Reading something
that is fun to read probably would be much less depleting. Yes?
>>: Along those lines, I guess when you're passionate about something, really interested
in something like reading a comic book, is less self-control, so did you find at all in your
studies, you said earlier that the two factors that determine a successful person our
intelligence and self-control. Is like passion or interest not a factor?
>> Roy Baumeister: Well yeah, when I said the two traits, passion would be tied to some
specific thing. So yes, being passionate, being motivated would help you do whatever it
does, but bringing passion to one thing doesn't necessarily generalize to everything else.
What I meant by that is they have looked at intelligence in every occupation that has been
studied, smart people do better than dumb people. Not just software engineers, but
janitors and waiters and waitresses and so on, the intelligent ones do better than the
others. It is remarkable. And self-control, there is not as much data, but it is looking like
the same thing. So yes, I would have to say that passion is not a trait that you would
carry around independent of what you are doing, but passion would be more specific, but
yeah, I would think that would be a plus.
>>: Given that self-control is sort of it seems is affected by social and environmental
variables, is there a way that you can maybe borrow self-control from others around you
>> John Tierney: Oh, outsourcing. We talk in the book about this about outsourcing
self-control and really 12-step groups do that. You go there, and one of the points, we've
got a chapter dealing with the quantified self movement; you are probably familiar with
that here. But there are all these new digital tools for monitoring--I mean the basic steps
in self-control are to set realistic goals and to monitor yourself. We all make this, it's
called the planning fallacy, that we all tend to think that we will get more done and we
talk in the book about how you set long-term goals for short-term goals. But monitoring
is a huge part of that, and that is where you can rely on groups to do that for you and you
can rely on software to do that for you. I have rescue time monitoring on my computer
so I can see how much time I spent on my Microsoft Word, which is productive, and how
much time I am surfing the web. And I use mint.com to track my money for me, and all
of these things that help you. You are basically outsourcing it to other people.
And that is one of the reasons why studies have consistently shown that religious people
have more self-control. Now some of that is because religions have some of these
exercises, the equivalent of sitting up straight that you do these prayers and meditations
and that builds your self control. But some of it also is that you're part of this group, this
congregation that is watching you and you know that they are going to see you do
something wrong, so you basically outsource that self-control to somebody else. And I
think one of the great things about social media now and all these new digital tools is that
you can do it. There are websites like stick.com where you can make a bet in the point a
referee and everybody is watching you, and then there is software that I am sure you guys
know about where they will e-mail your boss or your spouse which websites you visited
and I mean that's really outsourcing. [laughter].
>>: Are there any correlations between ADHD and self-control?
>> Roy Baumeister: Oh yes. That is not my specialty area but some of the top people at
Berkeley specifically treat ADHD as a deficit in self-control and see that as the core
aspect of it, as the core manifestation, so yes, absolutely.
>>: So it seems like you are touching on what I was about to get into and that would be
monitoring. It seems to me that you could remember states in which you made good
decisions and you could kind of observe how you felt, kind of make a trial balloon
decision currently and make comparisons and get a feel for what kind of state you are in
at any time.
>> John Tierney: I am remembering why things, when things went right. And one of the
great things about monitoring is simply being able to watch yourself over time and see
what correlates with what. It gives you this sense, and one of the ways you are on the
planning fallacy, we all, it's amazing that there have been these experiments where they
ask students to predict how long it will take them to do a term paper. And everybody
expects to get it done too soon, basically. Very few people even meet their worst-case
>> Roy Baumeister: That's right.
>> John Tierney: And you would think, I mean I've been a journalist all my life and you
would think that I would know by this time how long it takes me to write a column, and
yet I am still always telling myself that I will get that done in the morning. And what I
found out writing this book is what I did, I mean I did a few things, I had rescue time.
But the simplest thing I did was I just made myself write down at the end of the day how
many words did you write that day. That helped restrain my procrastinating, because I
knew, you know, that I could go research a topic for two hours and it might be fun, but it
wasn't going to add to the total.
So I knew I had to do that. But the other thing was it was just good to be able to look at
the end of the week. I never got done as much as I wanted to, but I could still see how
much I had gotten done, and I gradually became a little bit more realistic when I would
say okay, we've gotten 30,000 words done and I am hoping by the end of this month I
will have this much done. But I was getting more realistic. I wouldn't tell myself oh, you
are going to write 3000 words a day this week. So I could look back and see you have
never done that before, why would you do it now. [laughter].
>>: As you were talking about IQ and analogy in muscles and I started thinking is the
goal to turn ourselves into hulking superheroes of self-control and then the reason why I
ask that is I am thinking about my artist friends who are frankly pretty reckless at times.
They just abandon it seems like their self-control. And they use that time to incubate the
ideas and create. And I am wondering if there is a danger of like, you know, perpetuating
>> Roy Baumeister: You know, there is a good line about that in the book. When I
visited David Allen of the Getting Things Done and GTD, if you know, it was really fun
visiting him. And he has a nice line about it because he works with a lot of artists, you
know, the Simpsons writers use GTD. I mean he got me using GTD. I use it to
remember the milk, and his line about artists was, what he tells them is your mind can
only handle one meth at a time, and then he said that if you're trying to find God and you
have to get dog food, you might as well be thinking about dog food, so get rid of the dog
food, get that so your mind is free to create. And I think that is really true. Drew Carey
we profiled him; he is someone that David Allen worked with and he had enough money
he hired David Allen to just come and sit next to him and go through his inbox with him.
What'll I do with this e-mail? What was that? And Carey said he found it amazingly
liberating that he could actually go read a book or to yoga class or work on a comedy
routine without thinking there are 12 other things that I ought to be doing.
>>: Just thinking about the combinations that you mentioned in the beginning about
success being intelligence and willpower and many of us have little children and I am
wondering what you might recommend we do to I guess teach them that willpower at a
young age to essentially set them up for success later.
>> Roy Baumeister: There is a fairly long chapter in the book about this because we
realize the importance of it. As I said I started out in the self-esteem movement and our
society is very much, was afraid to criticize children, and so on because it will damage
their self-esteem. But they have great self-esteem. You know, unless you are constantly
negative to the point of abusive, you don't have to worry about their self-esteem. Make
self-control the priority and just having that in your mind already as a parent will get you
far. My wife started when she was still nursing, she would ask the baby to stop crying
before she got fed. And so babies are not really good at emotion control and so she
learned that she had to kind of sit there and wait and go come on, come on, stop crying
and as soon as she got herself to stop crying, she got a hold of her feelings, then
immediately she got the breast. So instead of just learning to cry and go nuts, that the
only way that you get what you want is to have a tantrum, you learn to control the
tantrum. There is this book, The Tiger Mom, confessions and so on and for many
Americans that is extreme, but you can't argue with results.
The Asian subpopulation, they overachieve relative to IQ compared to white people at
all, multiple measures and levels throughout society. So some of the things they do, just
insisting that the children have rules, with a small child simple rules and with the older
child you have to get them to agree with the rules and participate and remember what you
are trying to cultivate is self-control. So you don't wait until there is a problem, when the
child shows good self-control like again with our child, Diane would see something
would happen. She wouldn't get what she wanted or whatever, she managed not to throw
a tantrum or not to be upset and well, that was good, that you showed control or whatever
and you praised them for showing self-control there.
As I said there are a lot of other things in the book, but again making that a priority and
realizing that that is a goal, watching other parents is just horrifying to see that the kids
say I want to do this and the parents is no we can do that. And the kid says I want to do
that and finally the kid throws a tantrum and the parent gives in. And you think, oh
Jesus, you're just training the kid to lose control. Instead, if you're about to give the child
something and then it does something, it throws a tantrum or something, well then I was
going to give it to you but I can give it to you now because you misbehaved. Make sure,
insist on, showing that self-control and respect in following rules and then rewarding that
very well, that produces a very nice positive result.
>> John Tierney: And the biggest thing really is consistency.
>> Roy Baumeister: Yes, yes.
>> John Tierney: As far as giving punishments and rewards, they don't have to be strict
punishments. I mean there isn't--but it should be done quickly and consistently. And one
of the reasons that successful parents have successful children is a high correlation.
There are probably genetic factors, but it is also that those parents have self-control
themselves and it takes self-control to instill it in a child. It is much easier to let them get
away with it, to just clean up the mess than making them do it. In the book we have
Nanny Deb from Nanny 911; we talked to her and see how she does it. And they have
these rules and it works very well. It is sort of that Victorian idea of how people do it.
And it is one reason why we talk about how this correlation that has been found between
single-parent households, children in those tend to do less well and there could be genetic
reasons; there could be various reasons for it. But one is there is one less person to exert
self-control. The single-parent is basically just trying to hold things together, whereas
when there are two you can double team the reinforcement.
>>: I am having trouble thinking about how to constantly monitor self-control with your
kids and also deal with the fatigue issues that you talked about earlier. I have an
elementary and a preschool child and I am told by the teachers that they are angels all day
and have wonderful self-control, but when they get home, they are just a matter of-whether I give them a snack or don't give them a snack, they seem to just have a
meltdown between the hours of like five and seven.
>> John Tierney: Well we all do don't we? [laughter].
>> Roy Baumeister: That's happy hour. [laughter].
>>: [inaudible] so I guess the question is, is it should we recognize the fatigue and give
them a little bit of a breather because they are children, and they have been good all day
long or is that actually giving in and is that going to create a cycle of them not practicing
self-control? I struggle with how strict to be during that witching hour when they come
>> John Tierney: I think giving them a snack is a great start. I mean one of the rules is
just eat first and things. Don't make empty--and I think also don't schedule really
difficult things to do. I wrote, the New York Times Magazine excerpted our chapter on
decision fatigue in the magazine and I went up there and I was talking them and I said we
have stopped scheduling meetings after four o'clock now, especially after reading this
stuff. It just seems like that is not the time of day to try to make big decisions and do
difficult things. With my son I was very, I just let them come home and watch TV or
play a videogame when he gets home. He's exhausted from school. Let them just chill
and give them some food and let them relax.
>> Roy Baumeister: And probably not sugar, because the glycemic indexing thing, that
just gives them a crash. You know, healthier food would probably produce a more stable
pattern of glucose and energy. Yes?
>>: You talk about how well [inaudible] relates in decision-making. How does decisionmaking from the gut come into play, if at all?
>> Roy Baumeister: Okay. Decision making from the gut, that tends to be what people
do when their willpower is depleted. They will make more impulsive, hence more bad
decisions. It is, we don't know all the parts yet, but first of all the rational thinking
through being disciplined, that is what takes willpower. And also making that
commitment, sort of stamping it in. I think of it as sort of writing to disk phase that uses
a lot of energy. That also takes some of it. I should say too, we showed that making
decisions depletes self-control, but after exerting self-control, it changes decision-making
too. We published some studies on that, that people for example, a compromise, when
people are in full possession of their power they are compromisers and with a little bit of
this; they will work things together or trade-off price and quality to get just the right mix.
When they are depleted from actual self-control, they are just give me the cheapest or
give me the best or something. Their compromise goes out the window. More irrational
bias, you are making decisions based on things that shouldn't have anything to do with
the decision. More postponing of the decision; I am not going to pick anything. Decision
making is degraded in various ways too when…
>>: [inaudible] analysis paralysis and too much time trying to come up with a decision.
>> John Tierney: Well, there is a really good example that we have in the book with this
actor Jim Turner who was an [inaudible] and he suffers from diabetes and he does a oneman show about it, and that shows you some of the symptoms of what happens when
your glucose is low. It is an extreme case. He was having a crash on the beach with his
son and he realized that he had to get some food into him. And they got up and they left
the beach and they were at the concession area and he had to go to the bathroom and he
had to eat. And he was so depleted he couldn't, he just stood there for 20 minutes. He
couldn't make the decision. He just sat down. His son was freaking out. He couldn't
make the decision. He said it's like your brain, suddenly there is a piece of your brain
missing. That is what that paralysis is; you just don't have the energy to make a decision
at that point.
>> Roy Baumeister: He probably could have had them both done in the 20 minutes that
he was trying to decide which one to do first.
>>: And a follow-up question, a fatigue question, if I am hearing you correctly you are
saying that self-control is like a muscle. When you exert it you actually get better at it,
>> Roy Baumeister: Yes. The short-term effect is to get worse but the long-term effect
is you get better.
>>: That only happens after. Initially you are tired. So you only get better at it after you
have a rest cycle. So what if, I see this both at work and in coaching people athletically,
what if the lack of self-control is in the rest cycle, that people when they get tired what
they do is they go harder, they go more and they rest less, and that is just a vicious cycle.
Do you talk about that in the book, about how to get more self-control over resting versus
>> John Tierney: Well, that it takes self-control actually to enjoy yourself too. There are
people that are extreme tightwads, and extreme spendthrifts who neither one of them,
they are both kind of irrational about things. And people who don't, and it does take
some willpower and self-control to set aside time to enjoy things. You've got to use,
don't just work all the time; you got to make the effort to plan a vacation and set time
aside and make a decision I am not going to do any work at this time, and I have done
enough. And what is so hard about ego de-placing is that you don't really recognize how
bad you have become. Like this wrestler may not realize that he is too tired. I am just
working harder and I think I need to rest some, and just recognizing that there is one
source of energy for all these sorts of things. You can't just power through everything.
You can't just say I'll get by on four hours of sleep and then just keep doing it and doing
it and doing ten different things. You've got to recognize that I have a finite supply and
so I will do this, but I'm not going to do that.
>> Roy Baumeister: There are some experiences that we published earlier this year, we
showed an instance of that we had assigned people to be in a leadership role in a group;
actually it was all just made up. We told them that they were doing the same thing even
though they were, we told them that they were the leader or the subordinate, the follower.
And the subordinate showed the usual pattern, when they were depleted their
performance went down. The ones who were told they were the boss, they kept going at
a high level and in fact sometimes the, if the task had been something that leaders
normally would delegate to someone else, they tended not to do it, but when they were
depleted, then they even did those tasks as well, so they seem to be less judicious in
managing their energies, which seems to be exactly what you are suggesting. So their
performance continued at a high level, but then when we tested them afterwards, they
were really wasted. So I am not knowing exactly what the cure is for it, but this pattern is
very real. Sometimes making the decision about how to manage your energies, that is
actually degraded when you have less energy to use on things and use it inefficiently.
>> Kirsten Wiley: Let’s just do one more question.
>> John Tierney: Okay. We'll do two more, okay [laughter]?
>>: In the book you mention [inaudible] goals. There seems to be a discrepancy
between [inaudible] goals and [inaudible]. How do you [inaudible]?
>> Roy Baumeister: I don't understand.
>>: [inaudible].
>> John Tierney: Well there were a couple of studies; we mentioned a couple of studies
in which some students did better by having very short term goals and some by having a
monthly goal. And we talked about that you can't make overarching generalizations
about it, because in some cases you're better off doing one. I think one was that older
students tended to do better. Isn't that how it went?
>> Roy Baumeister: Well, I think to be effective, you need both. If you have too many
detailed goals then you end up, then you are not flexible. So there has to be some degree
of flexibility in the timetable and so forth, especially as you point out most people don't
meet their targets day by day. But still if you mainly set short-term goals then you just,
life goes by and well, where did it all go? You don't really get to anywhere; you just deal
with things one at a time. So that is not effective. If you just set long-term goals, you
don't know how to get there and it is sort of frustrating and daunting and you flail around
and don't get there either. You need to have the long-term goal and then elaborate it on to
whatever the short term goals are needed in order to make progress toward it. I tell my
students that I advise and so on, you should have a five-year plan. You can change it, but
what you're doing now, you should have an idea of where you want to be in five years
and then you should also translate it into what should I be doing now in order to get there.
And they start graduate school and they want to have a PhD in five years. Well, that
means that you have to get this much down and get this many publications, which means
that you better get started and have as much done this month or this semester. Getting
both of those is really the only effective way to get where you want to be in life.
>> John Tierney: Okay. There was one here that you…
>>: Do we have time? I was just wondering what you think of other cases where it is
better to act on impulse, like you're talking about outsourcing as an efficient way to
preserve self-control. Isn't it also saying well, some impulses are okay? I mean in some
cases, like in combat, you need that impulse and in other cases like deciding what color
shoes do I want to wear today or something like that, I mean cut back on impulse and
>> Roy Baumeister: Well yes. I mean life, impulses make life fun. I think if you have
good self-control then your impulses won't carry you away into trouble, and you sort of
know when you can let your guard down and act on impulse. And I think that that is
appropriate. We are not at all advocating a life that is all planned and budgeted, but if
you manage the big things, then you can go out and impulse purchase or eat what you
want or do kinky things with your spouse or whatever. So yes, make some space for
enjoying your impulses as well. Impulsive styles of work generally don't work as well as
effective ones. I know people that have studied college professors, some write very
steadily and plod along and write a couple of pages every day, and others will stay up all
night and work for two weeks intensely for two weeks writing a paper and then not write
anything for a month. Well, the ones who get tenure are the first ones, the ones who keep
producing at a steady rate. So-called binge writers, that is not an effective way to do it.
But as long as you keep producing and manage the big things effectively, then sure you
can make room in your life for impulsive stuff and that will enrich life.
>> John Tierney: Like impulse purchases of say a book.
>> Kirsten Wiley: Thank you so much.