Book Review: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

by Roy Baumeister

Professor Roy Baumeister is one of the most prolific authors in contemporary psychology, with over 450 publications and more than a dozen books to his name.  I’m not sure if he identifies himself as a fully paid-up positive psychologist, but he has, for example, co-authored a chapter on “Consciousness” in the recently-published book “Designing Positive Psychology” (Sheldon, Kashdan, & Steger, 2011), which claimed to be a general stocktaking of where positive psychology (PP) stood ten years after its public launch.  So his recent evening lecture at the LSE to present his latest book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” — co-authored with New York Times science writer John Tierney — was naturally of interest to several MAPPsters, including me.

Before attending the lecture, I hadn’t yet seen the book, but I had read most of the research papers on which it is based.  (For a list, see http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/egodepletion.html).  Baumeister’s theory is that self-regulation – the ability to consciously control one’s emotional reactions – is a limited resource, which can only be deployed for a certain period of time before becoming depleted – or rather, before the brain, which detects the possible approach of depletion, reduces the amount of self-regulation which it is prepared to perform.  He further postulates that this “ego-depletion” is not consciously felt (for example, it occurs well before subjects report feeling tired), and that it is mediated to a substantial degree by the level of glucose in the blood.

The lecture was brief – about 30 minutes – and moderately entertaining.  It would be unfair to criticise it for its rather superficial treatment of the science, as it was aimed at a general audience who could not have been expected to have been previously exposed to any of the research.  The key message seemed to be that for optimum self-regulation, a person needs proper sleep and good food, which may not come as a huge surprise to many people. Baumeister did not present any particularly exciting new findings.  I had to leave before the end of the Q&A, so I was unable to buy a copy of the book and have it signed by the author, which was, of course, the main purpose of his visit to the UK.  So I ended up borrowing a copy, which turned out to be a good move.

As with several other books written by psychologists who are trying to bring the key message of years worth of research to a popular audience, there is a strong feeling that 80 pages of interesting content has been stretched to 250 by adding a good deal of “filler” material, much of it about celebrities — the willpower, or in some cases lack thereof, of Eric Clapton, Oprah Winfrey, and David Blaine are all featured.  Thus, for example, there is an entire chapter devoted to the Welsh/American explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame), which reads very much like a standard “misunderstood American hero” piece which a journalist might have had lying around in a draft folder somewhere, but has no obvious relationship to the science of ego-depletion.  In another chapter, the American entertainer Drew Carey finds himself unable to cope with all the e-mail and phone calls which he receives, despite having hired an assistant.  The obvious solution might be to hire another assistant, but instead, Carey brings in “productivity guru” David Allen – whose rack rate for corporate work is $20,000 per day – to follow him around for a year.  Again, the connection with psychology is not explained; indeed, Allen is the kind of author whose works are normally filed in the same section as Stephen R. Covey and Anthony Robbins, the work of both of whom is repeatedly (gently) mocked in the book.

The overall effect is of reading two books, which rarely overlap, and when they do, not always happily, as if Tierney has not always checked his science with Baumeister.  Thus, on page 56, we are told that girls’ better self-control is one of the reasons why they get better grades in school.  But hold on — didn’t Baumeister show, in his 2010 book Is There Anything Good About Men?, that girls’ better grades are in fact a statistical illusion, caused by grade inflation and a consequent ceiling effect on the best-performing boys?  And, if glucose drives self-control, how is it that adolescents with high trait self-control have lower blood sugar levels (page 210) — a statement which is made out to be a good thing, as it shows that these individuals are thus at lower risk of diabetes?

The world-wide attention given to this book (as of this writing, it is #2 on the Guardian bookshop’s bestseller list, and a creditable #359 in Books on amazon.co.uk) might conceivably have some social/political implications.  Both in the book and his lecture, Baumeister is at pains to point out that the need for a good level of blood glucose — achieved, in his laboratory, by giving some subjects non-diet soft drinks, while the control group received diet versions — does not mean that he recommends that people consume a lot of soda; balanced meals, with slower release of sugars over time, are preferable.  (Actually, I found that to be a bit of a shame; it would have been rather fun to discover that all you need is sugar, but no, as usual, it’s boring old fruits, vegetables, and whole grains).  The glucose theory seems, however, to be a dangerous weapon to wave around in public.  Schools in many countries are trying to get rid of soft drink and snack vending machines, and one can easily imagine the giants of the junk food world using the message about glucose to try and reverse this trend, being positioned as easy (“yes, it’s scientifically-proven!”) ways to get kids to show some self-control in their next lesson.  In another example, on page 205, the authors seem to question intrinsic motivation theories of work — “we wonder if love of learning is overrated as a motivational tool” — and suggest that, as an alternative, workplaces for Generation Y employees could be “gamified”, with the opportunity to “level up” or complete “quests”, which sound to me rather like old-fashioned concepts of “promotion” and “projects”.

And, as so often when psychologists — especially, it seems, positive psychologists — take their research to the wider world, it seems that the science is not yet irrefutable either.  Carol Dweck, applying her “mindset” approach, has a paper in preparation (https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/Ego-Depletion%20-%20Is%20It%20All%20In%20Your%20Head.pdf) which claims to show that ego-depletion does not occur if the subject has been primed to not believe in ego-depletion.  (If that’s true, of course, it would raise the question of why Baumeister’s results appear to show that the most common default position is to believe that ego-depletion is real.)  Furthermore, Baumeister’s research does not yet seem to be extensively quantified.  How long does a subject have to spend suppressing overt expressions of sadness or laughter before their performance on a subsequent task is impacted, and what is the extent of that impact?  How many grams of glucose are required to reverse ego-depletion, and how long does it take?  Of course, science never has all the answers — because, as the comedian Dara O’Briain remarked, if it did, it would stop — but perhaps in this case, it doesn’t yet have enough of the answers to rush into print with yet another “fix your life with the latest developments of psychology” book.

Author’s Bio

Nick Brown is a MAPP student at UEL, trying to reconcile the need for better science in positive psychology with a looming realisation that trying to measure anything truly interesting with objective data is close to impossible.  He welcomes all comments, rebuttals, and tips – of either the “help” or “PayPal” kind – at nick.brown@free.fr

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