Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Willpower for the 99%


The 99% is a story that fits many journalist's favorite narratives about the major problem today: inequality. This seems like altruism, but focusing on the top 1% is also consistent with envy. Many think the top 1% are responsible for the poverty of the 99%, especially the truly poor, those in the bottom quartile. Yet the poor are pretty far removed from anything the top 1% can do. Graduate from high school, get married before you have children, work at any kind of job, even one that starts out paying the minimum wage. Fewer than 10 percent of families that follow his blueprint live in poverty, while 79 percent of those who don't follow the three-step plan end up poor. There is no redistribution scheme imaginable close to this in reducing poverty.

A good Christmas gift for the poor would be Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's Willpower, a great little book with timeless advice. It notes that Willpower has an effect on life outcomes as great as IQ, and more importantly, is much more amenable to nurture as opposed to nature. Perseverence, discipline, patience, all take practice, and make you a happier, healthier, and more productive person. The basic premise comes from the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where a group of four-year-old children were given one marshmallow, but promised two on condition that he or she wait twenty minutes, before eating the first marshmallow. Some children were able to wait the twenty minutes, and some were unable to wait. The children able to delay gratification were tested in later adolescence and found to be psychologically better adjusted, more dependable persons, and had higher SAT scores. Given hardly anything is predictive at that age, this is quite remarkable.

Baumeister has spent much of his career as a psychologists studying and designing tests on willpower. He notes it is a finite resource, and so quitting smoking is much harder when you are also studying (the rigorous study of common sense!). But willpower is like a muscle in that it weakens while you use it, but also strengthens the more you use it, so practicing it daily by doing things like standing up straight and not swearing transfers to other areas. Making decisions is exhausting, it depletes one's willpower, so its useful to design simple rules for much of your daily toil. Being low on energy from lack of sleep or nutrition also hurts your willpower. Basically, practice daily acts of self-control to become more productive.

This reminded me of a Eric Kandel's work on brain memories. He won a Nobel prize by looking at snails and finding that long-term memory, unlike short-term memory, involved the synthesis of new proteins. You get long-term memories through repetition in the same way you build muscle through exercise, so if you practice something daily and it becomes a habit--the muscle memory of a golf swing, the neural memory of saying 'please' and 'thank you'--you actually have altered your brain. Your habits are not just abstract character, but have a biological substrate. This surely encourages cryogenics fans who want to freeze their dead heads in vats of liquid nitrogen so that they can be re-animated in the future.

Life is a journey from ignorance and instinct to higher virtues, including the prudence needed in a complex world. Such prudence comes mainly from acting with thoughtful resoluteness towards the many petty people and temptations around us. Willpower is a great book that reaffirms the power within us to become better people.

15 comments:

B. A. said...

nice post, Eric.

zby said...

I've seen this experiment being quoted all over the Internet - good virality I guess. But I have not seen anyone talking about the alternative hypothesis - that maybe more important than the children's will power in this experiment was having faith that strangers in laboratory coats would keep their promise.

Patrick said...

Interesting citation of the marshmellow experiment but the link sourcing your claim about x% of people doing xyz not being poor is an essay with no citations written by a pastor for an online magazine done with 1997-style HTML site design. It somewhat undermines the credibility of the claim, not that a pastor can't write up a scientifically sound study, but that there lacks any hard data to research for someone curious how such a specific assertion came about.

Anonymous said...

I doubt there is a casual link between getting poor and getting married, Eric. Maybe the pope believes it, but I don't.

It's just a proxy for another effect.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Patrick: the cite was just to show I wasn't making it up...it's a well-known factoid by William Galston (adviser to Bill Clinton), quoted by Cal Thomas, and quoted in that link by a pastor.

But if you dispute the fact, great, facts are easier to resolve than theories (presuming you really want to know, which is often not the case).

JW Ogden said...

IMO The book of proverbs from the bible is incredibly good on the subject. BTW Wisdom is doing now what will bring good results in the future.

Ken said...

Focusing on improving willpower is a good self improvement tool that I applaud.

But essentially you're saying it takes willpower to improve willpower, and so I doubt it's a solution for the 1%-99% divide in society.

How it that different from it takes money to make money?

Anonymous said...

People don't consciously choose whether they will go on to get an education or get married. Free will is a lie. People don't choose their genes or the place where they grow up. Both of those factors shape every aspect of a person's brain, which then determines that individual's life (unless they get meditation of extensive therapy). The 1% didn't choose to be wealthy and the 99% didn't choose to be less wealthy. Human society is a complex system based on evolution where people act according to decisions made by long-dead primates.

What you're referring to by willpower is the "Big Five" personality trait of conscientiousness, which has a neurological basis (mainly involving the frontal cortex and limbic system). Check out the work of Nora Volkow on addiction, for example. Smart neuroscientists like David Eagleman and Sam Harris present evidence that free will is an unscientific concept.

Anonymous said...

zby makes a very interesting point about counterparty risk to strangers in lab coats.

however, consider what the cost is to the kids to wait and find out if the labcoats make good on their promise. face value seems that there would be zero cost for the option to find out if the second marshmellow arrives.

guess we won't know if the kids felt threatened that the first marshmellow would be taken away, but an argument could be made the first marshmellow would taste more delicious if they waited - and especially more so if the second marshmellow were not delivered as promised which would be a value-add to waiting.

bottom line... i guess my opinion is that the conclusion in willpower is more interesting than the virality of the study. good thought though.

Anonymous #5 said...

If you compare how often the marshmallow experiment is cited to the substance of the original experiment, you'll be amazed. Suffice it to say that it would not be at all convincing to draw grand conclusions about society and human nature if your priors did not align with it.

Anonymous #5 said...

I would also question the premise that income is highly correlated with hard work. There is a relationship but let's get real here.

The most reliable way to make a lot of money is to hang out near a lot of money. Investment bankers, private equity guys, etc. make a lot of money because they work on big dollar deals with relatively small teams of people. Same thing for well-paid lawyers -- you get rich by being near huge flows of money and skimming a little bit off the top.

Now yeah sure, these guys are pretty smart and conscientious, work incredibly long hours, have pretty stressful lives, etc etc. But you can be smart and work hard and so on and not make so much money. You can tackle challenging social problems, you can work on the frontier of human knowledge and technology, whatever, nothing beats getting close to someone else's giant pile of cash as they move it around.

The other way to get rich is by being a wildly successful entrepreneur. But this is kind of like finance, there are only so many people in a society that this strategy can work for.

Leo said...

What a pile of pants!

A good Christmas gift for the poor would be Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's Willpower, a great little book with timeless advice.

Many poor people don't have the literacy level to read such a book (I'll spare you the statistics, but you can easily google the literature). Thinking that poverty is a problem of willpower shows your ignorance about the subject, both at the academic and maybe more importantly at the human level.

There is no redistribution scheme imaginable close to this in reducing poverty.

What about investing in free and universal education?

Unanimous said...

Did Charlie Sheen wait for the second marshmallow when he was young? I guess he did, and now look at him go.

I waited also, because I don't like marshmallows and I thought I could trade two of them with my sister for a cigarette (a chocolate one of course).

It's interesting the relationship between trust in people in white coats, patience, will power, and desire for marshmallows.

And anyway, if enough people showed enough will power, then everyone would be a doctor or lawyer and everything would get really dirty because there would be no one to clean things. So I don't like the idea of giving people this book.

Dave Pinsen said...

"What about investing in free and universal education?"

We already spend plenty on free and universal k-12 education -- 7% of GDP, versus 4% for defense. We spend more per student on primary and secondary education than Japan does. We spend more per student than Germany does.

Greg Linster said...

I'll be sure to pick this book up. On a related note, if you haven't read Baumeister's book, Is There Anything Good About Men?, it is excellent as well.