Monthly Archives: August 2011

Willpower: Exercise or conserve?

After all the more or less fruitless posts on free will as a metaphysical problem, here’s something a little more practical. The following is from a recent article by John Tierney  discussing some of Roy F. Baumeister’s research on what they are calling “ego depletion” or “decision fatigue.”

[Baumeister’s] experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.

According to this view, the best way to maintain a high level of willpower is to conserve it by not using it too much! This can be contrasted with the view that sees willpower as a muscle to be built up by constant exercise — what we might call the Hamlet theory of self-control (“Refrain to-night, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence”).

As the muscle metaphor suggests, the two views are not necessarily incompatible. Other things being equal, someone who has just run a mile will be weaker than someone who has not — but someone who runs a mile every day will be stronger. Baumeister’s experiments (at least the ones mentioned in the article) only measure the short-term effects of decision fatigue, so they do not rule out the possibility that willpower works the same way. It would be interesting to see the results of a study on the effects of a long-term regimen of willpower training.


There can be little doubt that, when it comes to any one specific behavior, Hamlet is right that each abstinence makes the next easier — but this probably has more to do with establishing or disrupting habits than with building up willpower. Once something becomes a habit, it no longer requires much in the way of decision-making or willpower. The Spartans didn’t have to force themselves every evening to have nothing but black broth for dinner; this habit was probably so entrenched that nothing else even seemed like a live option. Once your brain has got the idea that this is just what we do, that no decision-making is required, willpower ceases to be an issue. When I was a Mormon missionary, I had an enormous number of rules to follow — get up at 6:00 every morning, never put your hands in your pockets, refrain from using the word “guy,” etc. — but after a few months none of them were very difficult to follow. This was not because my willpower had increased, but because the behaviors in question had shifted out of the realm of conscious decision and into the realm of habit. This is what Hamlet means when he says that use almost can change the stamp of nature.


I’m interested in a different question, though: whether exercising one’s willpower can make it stronger in general, aside from the effect habituation may have on any one specific behavior.

Mormons have a practice of fasting for 24 hours (a complete fast: no food, no water) on the first Sunday of every month. Though there are other purposes for this (for example, the money saved by not eating is supposed to be given as alms), one rationale which I often heard was that by practicing self-control in this arbitrary matter, one built up one’s ability to control oneself in general, resulting in an increased capacity to resist temptation. I suppose similar thinking underlies other forms of asceticism and “mortification of the flesh.” Baumeister would probably say that fasting is bad for willpower in the short term (low glucose levels were found to negatively affect willpower), but could regular fasting really build up willpower in the long run?

One thing that makes this difficult to test (or to practice, for that matter) is that, whatever regimen of willpower training one decides to use, it is itself in danger of becoming a habit and thus ceasing to be a meaningful exercise in self-control. The Mormon program of fasting addresses this issue to some extent; because the fasts only occur once a month, they always represent a break in one’s routine and never become fully habitual. Still, though, one becomes accustomed to fasting and it ceases to be difficult. As a Mormon, I was virtually never seriously tempted to break my fast early, and it’s not clear that I was actually exercising self-control in any meaningful sense. Of course I felt hungry and thirsty, but mere desire does not always constitute a real temptation which must be resisted by force of will. Walking down the street on a hot summer’s day, you may feel uncomfortably warm, but are you ever seriously tempted to take off all your clothes? Does it really take any self-control to keep them on? When you see something in a shop which you want but can’t afford, is it really willpower that keeps you from stealing it? Our habits, and our idea of which actions are thinkable and which are not, determine whether or not willpower even comes into play.


I suppose a regimen of real (non-habitual) willpower training would look something like a kung fu movie, where the master trains his student by making a series of unpredictable and often whimsical demands.


Filed under Ethics, Psychology

Mercedes Benzes, palaces, and Swiss bank accounts

I’m less than 100 pages into Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, but already I keep thinking, “Wait, didn’t I just read that?” I know pointless repetition is a standard feature of academic writing (tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said), but I think you’re at least supposed to vary the wording a bit.

Here’s Professor Wintrobe on page 14, explaining his use of the word timocracy:

I borrow this term (perhaps inappropriately) from Plato (in The Republic [1974]). I use it to refer to a benevolent dictatorship, one in which the dictator genuinely cares for his or her people. It was not Plato’s ideal form of rule — it ranked second to rule by the Philosopher-King in his scheme. Still, the Greek root of timocracy is Thymos — to love.

And here he is on page 80, refreshing the reader’s memory:

I borrow the term “timocracy” from Plato (in The Republic), who designated by it what is obviously a benevolent dictatorship, although this type of regime ranked second to rule by the Philospher-King in Plato’s scheme. Still, the Greek root of the word “timocracy” is Thymos — to love.

And here he is, preparing his students for the exam question, “What three luxury goods do tinpot dictators crave?”:

Tinpots are regimes in which the ruling government does not disturb the traditional way of life of the people; instead it represses them only to the modest extent necessary to stay in office and collect the fruits of monopolizing political power (Mercedes Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 11).

A totalitarian regime uses these instruments of repression and loyalty to maximize power over the population, whereas a tinpot regime seeks no more power over its citizenry than is required to remain in power and collect the fruits (Mercedes-Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts) of that office (p. 15).

The tinpot leader is essentially a rent-seeker, who seeks no more power over the population than the minimum needed to stay in office, using the rest of the resources of the state for his or her own purposes (palaces, Mercedes Benzes, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 79).

I wish Cambridge University Press had thought to hire an editor. Prof. Wintrobe’s central ideas are engaging, but these  déjà vu moments are starting to get really distracting. (When you stop reading to go back through the book looking for examples and then write a blog post about it, that’s generally a sign that you’ve been successfully distracted.)

Update (9/8): I’ve finished the book now and recommend it. The distracting repetitions stopped after the first 100 pages or so — or perhaps I just got sufficiently absorbed in the book that I didn’t notice them.


Filed under Oddities

Some notes on the dark arts of rhetoric

The most effective put-down is one that employs — and deftly eviscerates — the very same terms which would ordinarily be used for praise. This is roughly a million times more effective than name-calling. Witness Byron’s masterful deflation of pretensions of immortality:

Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate;
See how the Mighty shrink into a song!

The power of these lines hinges at least in part on the choice of the word “song” — put at the end of a line for extra punch. This is the same word usually used to refer to fame as a kind of apotheosis (as in “to be immortalized in song”), but Byron makes it sound rather paltry — not by actually saying it is paltry, but by casting his verse in such a way that the reader is forced to presuppose it is paltry. The addition of that little word “a” is also a slick touch. How much less glorious it sounds to be immortalized in a song!

Another good example of this is in the film The Aviator, when Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) says to Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You are a movie star — nothing more.” By simply using the (usually positive) term “movie star” as an insult, he presupposes that both he and Hepburn already know that movie stars are contemptible — and presupposing your point can be much more effective than making it directly.


Walter Winchell mocked Nazis by calling them “Ratzis” (Rational Socialists?) and “swastinkers”. Now “Nazi” itself is enough of an insult. Likewise for liberals, feminists, and fundamentalists. If you can ridicule or denounce something whilst using the very same name that its supporters use, it’s far more effective than making up some derogatory term.

Likewise, it’s usually better to embrace the common—even if hostile—terminology for what you support rather than insisting on something else. Groups that insist on politically correct euphemisms for themselves imply that they need euphemizing.

Insisting on special terminology for oneself or for one’s enemies is a sign of weakness. The best way is to use common neutral language, pushing it very slightly in the direction of sarcastically imitating the terminology used by your enemies—but not too much, or you’ll sound like you have a chip on your shoulder.


When you compare the president to a Nazi, your scorn for the president sounds shrill, but your scorn for Nazis sounds reasonable. Again, this is because your comparison takes it for granted that everyone knows Nazis are bad. If X is the real target of your scorn, don’t compare X to something worse; instead, find excuses to compare other things to X in a way that presupposes a negative opinion of X.

I once saw this comment on a blog: “You sound like a goddamn Christian with all that ‘People hate me because I’m awesome’ bullshit.” This may have been an effective put-down of its ostensible target (an atheist who would presumably object to being compared to a Christian), but it’s a far more effective put-down of Christians. (Corollary: Pro-religion commentators who compare outspoken atheists to religious fundamentalists are shooting themselves in the foot.)


These techniques are forms of sarcasm, which Studies Have Shown is more effective than direct criticism.

The psychologist Ellen Winner and her colleagues have shown that people have a better impression of speakers who express a criticism with sarcasm (“What a great game you just played!”) than with direct language (“What a lousy game you just played!”). The sarcastic speakers, compared with the blunt ones, are seen as less angry, less critical, and more in control. This may be cold comfort to the target of the sarcasm, of course, since criticism is more damaging when it is seen to come from a judicious critic than from a dyspeptic one (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, pp. 380-81).

Part of the power of sarcasm is that, to some extent, it only works if you’re right. “What a great game you just played!” will be understood as a sarcastic put down only if the listener already knows that he didn’t just play a great game, or at least has some doubts.

Sarcasm disarms its target. There is no safe reply. If you say, “What a great game you just played!” and I respond defensively (“Come on, it wasn’t so bad!”), I’m implicitly admitting that you are right. I understand your comment to be sarcasm, which means I know you couldn’t have meant it sincerely, which means I know I played badly. If, on the other hand, I don’t get the sarcasm (or pretend not to get it) and respond with “Thanks!”, you can answer with a withering “I was being sarcastic.”


Filed under Psychology, Rhetoric

The dream experiment is up and running

I’ve begun my Dunne-inspired experiment in dream precognition and will be posting my dream notes (records of dreams, together with notes on their connections with my past and future waking life) on this site. The notes on a given dream will not be published until one month after the dream itself, but I started the experiment just over a month ago, so a couple of dreams are up already. You can read more details of the experiment here.

I’ve found several links between dreams and future events, but so far nothing impressive enough to cast serious doubt on the null hypothesis that dreams do not contain precognitive elements.


Filed under Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy, This Blog

More songs that can be sung simultaneously

Almost too obvious to be interesting: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” by Harry Belafonte and “I Fought the Law” by the Crickets.

More challenging: “Vintage Wine” by the Moody Blues and “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi.

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Filed under Music