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RS61 - Willpower

Release date: May 20, 2012

This episode of Rationally Speaking is all about the age-old problem of willpower: why don't we do what we know is best for us? Massimo introduces some of the early philosophical approaches to this puzzle, and then Massimo and Julia go over more recent scientific research on the issue (for example: does resisting temptation deplete your reserves of willpower, or does it strengthen your willpower "muscle"?). They also examine possible solutions to the problem, including betting and precommitment, and online programs that can help.

Julia's pick:
Massimo's pick:





The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done
Why It's OK to Let Apps Make You a Better Person

Reader Comments (9)

15 min. into the discussion, Julia mentions that "they should also test what happens when people think they had been given a sugar pill..."

In fact, Carol Dweck (famous for her mindset research) has done something along the same lines, and she contends that it's all about the mindset ( Arguing the other side is Roy Baumeister, who does a lot of research into ego-depletion and has several experiments which claim to control for this (sweet-tasting sugar-free drinks are used as placebos).

Thanks for the excellent (as usual) podcast!

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGal

Julia mentions the same research at 22 min. Next time I shall wait before I post! :)


May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGal

Regarding the hypothesis "willpower depletes glucose" which study are you referencing? AFAIK it has been discredited already, see:

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoland

Is it rational for you to make sacrifices now for some future "you" who doesn't even exist?

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Deja vu! Wasn't there something else with a strangely specific side effect?

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterComment1

Don't I recall this being broadcast before?

June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Moriarty

Massimo mentions research suggesting that intrinsically religious people, especially those with a monotheistic, Judeo-Christian belief system, have more willpower than the non-religious. He speculates that this additional willpower might be a result of practicing self-denial from an early age. Could it not also (or additionally) be a sort of "Princess Alice" effect, with "God" as Princess Alice? (see this paper: Princess Alice is Watching You or Jesse Bering's book, "The Belief Instinct") If one really believed that someone were constantly watching and judging one's actions, it would probably be a boost to willpower!

June 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhai-ting

A very enjoyable and very instructive episode.

One little criticism though: sometimes (frequently?) procrastination stems from us not identifying with goals on which certain tasks are grounded. For instance, a low efficiency at work (hardly getting anything done) could be mere procrastination, but it could equally well be a sign of the person not thriving at work, or a sign of work not being conducive for work, etc.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterislandletters
So glad to learn that chocolate cookies increase performance over radishes.

So we have to contrast our daydreaming goal, itself psychologically satisfying, with our present reality in order to motivate ourselves to accomplish our real goals.

Actually a theologically brilliant point that if a person believes the mere thought of some conduct condemns them to hell, they really have no incentive to abstain from actually engaging in that conduct. This argument itself favors interpreting religion in such a way as to only condemn actual conduct (actus rea), or at least a mental commitment to actually engage in conduct (mens rea).

A brilliant physician in the 1950s once developed a method to help his patients lose weight. The physician would weigh the patients, examine them, take note of their build and height, and determine how many pounds he thought the patient should lose. Then the physician would say, "I have a guaranteed way to help you lose X pounds, but it is very expensive, you will have to bring me X number of hundred dollar bills." The patients, often desperate to lose the weight, would indeed usually bring in X number of hundred dollar bills. The physician would then say "Ok, this is my method for you losing weight: I want you to lose X pounds. You will come to my office once a month and I will weigh you. For every pound you lose, I will give you a hundred dollar bill. You must keep the weight off and continue to lose more until you have lost all X pounds to get all your money back." As ridiculous as this method might seem, the physician reported that more than 90% of his patients complied completely and lost all the weight that he requested, and got all their money back. As for the other 10%, I guess the physician got paid really well for just weighing someone once a month. Or perhaps he had to diagnose them further, as they possibly had some serious disease causing their obesity.
January 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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