Sunday, September 18, 2011

The (Non)Science of Willpower and Self-Control

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I saw the guys at Freakonomics talking about a new book by John Tierney (a NY Times journalist) and Roy Baumeister (a social psychologist at FSU) called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Since I've recently been interested in food reward, addiction and the mind/body problem I thought I'd check out some of Baumeister's research, thanks to PubMed every armchair research analyst's (or just gadfly in my case) favorite internet tool. Unfortunately, I've only got access to abstracts but those were enough to peg my bullshit meter.

First we have this Baumeister study entitled "High trait self-control predicts positive health behaviors and success in weight loss." Here's the abstract:
Surprisingly few studies have explored the intuitive connection between self-control and weight loss. We tracked participants' diet, exercise and weight loss during a 12-week weight loss program. Participants higher in self-control weighed less and reported exercising more than their lower self-control counterparts at baseline. Independent of baseline differences, individuals high in dispositional self-control ate fewer calories overall and fewer calories from fat, burned marginally more calories through exercise, and lost more weight during the program than did those lower in self-control. These data suggest that trait self-control is, indeed, an important predictor of health behaviors.
People with more self-control ate less (especially fat!) and exercised more, hence they lost more weight. There's so much wrong there, at this point I'm pretty much done with the guy. But the book blurb at Amazon mentions Baumeister's oft-cited work with willpower and brain glucose and that got my attention:
In what became one of the most cited papers in social science literature, Baumeister discovered that willpower actually operates like a muscle: it can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Willpower is fueled by glucose, and it can be bolstered simply by replenishing the brain's store of fuel. That's why eating and sleeping- and especially failing to do either of those-have such dramatic effects on self-control (and why dieters have such a hard time resisting temptation).
Wait, willpower operates like a muscle and it is fueled by glucose, sort of like a muscle? Hmmm...so do people who are frequently in ketosis have less willpower?

Baumeister has several papers on glucose and self-control. Perhaps they are referring to this one:
The present work suggests that self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source. Laboratory tests of self-control (i.e., the Stroop task, thought suppression, emotion regulation, attention control) and of social behaviors (i.e., helping behavior, coping with thoughts of death, stifling prejudice during an interracial interaction) showed that (a) acts of self-control reduced blood glucose levels, (b) low levels of blood glucose after an initial self-control task predicted poor performance on a subsequent self-control task, and (c) initial acts of self-control impaired performance on subsequent self-control tasks, but consuming a glucose drink eliminated these impairments. Self-control requires a certain amount of glucose to operate unimpaired. A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control.

The idea that acts of self-control could burn BG at higher levels than, say, normal thinking is interesting. The idea that drinking sugar water is going to increase someone's self-control sounds like a load of crap to me. I mean how does one quantitatively measure "stifling prejudice during an interracial interaction"? By drinking a liter of Coke?

Certainly addiction is a very real phonemena and is correlated with poor-impulse control. But I don't think what people like Baumeister are doing fits into the arena of actual science. The Freakonomics blog points to Anthony Weiner who famously lost his job by tweeting his johnson as an example of someone screwing up their life with poor impulse control. But I think impulse-control is a lot more complicated than that, or I'm not sure that sexting one's member is really about impulse control. Maybe it's just about being an asshole. Weiner was described by the NY Times "as often working long hours with his staff, requiring them to be in constant contact by Blackberry, frequently yelling at them, and occasionally physically abusing office furniture in anger." So apparently an asshole, but a workaholic asshole. Can one be a workaholic and still have little self-control or poor impulse control? Well, yeah, probably. But I think there's something else going on, perhaps being in a detached position constantly surrounded by ingratiating flunkies and all the other job characteristics that seem to make this sort of thing endemic among politicians. I dunno, but I don't think it has anything to do with quaffing a sugar drink.

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