In the smart restaurant of a very smart hotel in the West End of London, Roy Baumeister, eminent US social psychology professor, orders a lunch of fish and chips, and then decides not to eat the chips.
“I won’t eat something that’s not good for me unless it’s absolutely perfect and it’s going to give me real pleasure,” he says. “I’m afraid ... Well, it just didn’t look like these were going to do either.”
What willpower, you might say. You’d be right; the chips looked pretty good. However, Baumeister is also, coincidentally, a leading authority on that very subject and has just published a smash-hit book on it with New York Times science writer John Tierney.
Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength distills three decades of academic research (Baumeister’s contribution) into self-control and willpower, which the Florida State University social psychologist bluntly identifies as “the key to success and a happy life.”
The result is also (Tierney’s contribution) readable, accessible and practical. In fact, it’s an unusual self-help book in that it offers not just advice, tips and insights to help develop, conserve and boost willpower, but grounds them in some science.
Willpower is, Baumeister says over lunch, “what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation — do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilization.”
The disciplined and dutiful Victorians, all stiff upper lip and lashings of moral fiber, had willpower in spades; as, sadly, did the Nazis, who referred to their evil adventure as the “triumph of will.” In the 1960s we thought otherwise: Let it all hang out; if it feels good, do it; I’m okay, you’re okay.
However, without willpower, it seems, we’re actually rarely okay. In the 1960s, a sociologist called Walter Mischel was interested in how young children resist instant gratification; he offered them the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. Years later, he tracked some of the kids down and made a startling discovery.
Mischel’s findings have recently been confirmed by a remarkable long-term study in New Zealand, which concluded in 2010. For 32 years, starting at birth, a team of international researchers tracked 1,000 people, rating their observed and reported self-control and willpower in a different ways.
What they found was that, even taking into account differences of intelligence, race and social class, those with high self-control — those who, in Mischel’s experiment, held out for two marshmallows later — grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults.
Those with low willpower, the study discovered, fared less well academically. They were more likely to be in low-paying jobs with few savings, to be overweight, to have drug or alcohol problems and to have difficulty maintaining stable relationships (many were single parents). They were also almost four times more likely to have a criminal conviction.
“Willpower,” Baumeister says, “is one of the most important predictors of success in life.”
So, how can we improve ours? Baumeister’s big idea, now borne out by hundreds of ingenious experiments in his and other social psychologists’ laboratorys, is that willpower — the force by which we control and manage our thoughts, impulses and emotions and which helps us persevere with difficult tasks — is actually rather like a kind of moral muscle.