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.