Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Willpower Instinct (McGonigal) - Review and Critique

The Willpower Instinct is the best book out there for building the virtue of Temperance. Kelly McGonigal does an incredible job helping us make sense of our “willpower failures” and to learn to better respond to them. This is one of America’s greatest failures, and so I can understand why her class is so wildly popular.

There is little on the subject that she does not cover; there are few modern perspectives that are not considered. She then goes the extra mile and proposes ways to think about these failures in the reader’s own life, and exercises for trying to overcome the failures. It is eminently practical, one of the most practical self-help books I’ve come across.

Chapter by Chapter Summary and Discussion
In chapter 1, McGonigal makes the case that there are three kinds of “willpower”: I will, I won’t and I want. She advises that it is often useful to reframe challenges; for example, instead of “I will go to bed on time” she suggests trying things like “I will not use the internet after 10pm.” She also points out that focusing on our desire for “long term goals” is an important way to keep on track.

In chapter 2, she describes stress biology. She describes “fight or flight” versus “pause and plan” and talks about heart rate variability as a “store” of willpower. She describes how slowing down can improve your ability to make good choices and recommends relaxation exercises to aid with this process. A feature that comes up in a big way in this chapter is the translation of everything into cave-man fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong: I love fairy tales. I don't mean that she proposes developed evolutionary hypotheses that I happen to disagree with. Though well read on neuroscience and psychology, she didn't seem to bother studying evolutionary biology, but instead uses it as a narrative inspiration. The problem with this is that there are plenty of poor schmucks who probably can't tell the difference between McGonigals otherwise superb ability to summarize complex science and her speculations on human evolution. While showing remarkable restraint in staying within the bounds of the science in most places, she seems to be unable to exert “I won’t” power, and so we are transported back to the savanna every few pages to forage for hyena carcass or wear hippopotamus loin cloths.

She briefly summarizes the totally awesome work of Roy Baumeister in chapter 3: that willpower is like a muscle, can be depleted, built with practice and how it even runs on sugar (this work gets a little bit of a short shrift; for fuller treatment see Willpower by Baumeister). Otherwise, I think she did quite a good job on this front.

She deals with “licensing” effects in chapter 4, and describes the dangers of our moral illogic: a woman losing weight may reason, “I just burned 200 Calories on the stepper; I deserve extra dessert.” She points out how our moral logic of good works vs. bad works is counterproductive. Her advice is: forget virtue and focus on goals and values.  The major shortcoming of the book is McGonigal’s treatment of morality. She seems to implicitly treat it like nothing more than social shame, a set of emotions that is either useful or not toward achieving “long-term goals.” Nowhere does the light of any other perspective break through the clouds of her post-modernism. Never does she consider that most people through most of history were pretty sure that the only worthwhile long-term goal was morality. Plato’s pursuit of Justice in the Polis, or Aristotle’s description of the virtuous life of Eudemonia, or Jesus’ appeals to holiness, or Paul’s calls to godly life in community, or Augustine’s Confessions and call purity; no eightfold paths; no five pillars. Long-term goals are personal, and generally seem to include things like “losing weight” or “checking Facebook less”; at best, “improving my relationship.” But coming from Harvard and now at Stanford, she can hardly be blamed; moral relativism is pretty well taken for granted and individual freedom and choice is unquestionably thought to be The Good. She may also be excused because she’s using the word ‘virtue’ in the vernacular, as used by members of her class with nothing at all to do with what the word has traditionally meant. The irony is that while she repudiates virtue, I consider “The Willpower Instinct” the most practical modern workbook for those wanting to build the virtue of Temperance.

In chapter 5 “The Brain’s Big Lie,” she provides a delightful discussion of the work on dopamine and motivation, starting with the Olds and Milner brain stimulation-seeking rat (here’s the unrelated-to-the-book actual video, go to 2:30) and moving into the more recent literature. She seems to want to frame it as “the stupid basically-still-chimpanzee brain is lying” rather than “the incredibly well-tuned motivation circuits are hijacked.” Otherwise, for a lay-audience, I saw little room for improvement.

The “what the hell” effect was discussed in chapter 6: what happens after the sobered alcoholic falls off the wagon, or the dieter “blows” the day. I never realized how moralizing people get about their willpower failures, and how badly wrong they are about how morality works. Here, she makes up somewhat for her bad advice in chapter 4 with the good advice: accept yourself in your present condition, and try again.
Chapter 7 was a discussion of behavioral economics. She talked about delayed discounting, and some of the human vs chimpanzee delay-of-gratification experiments, as well as the Walter Mischel marshmallow experiment (here’s an awesome kid-trying-not-to-eat-a-marshmallow video). What was new to me was some of the new work on improving “future self continuity.” Some of this included VR interactions with “old you,” but other exercises like writing letters to “future me.” It reminded me of GK Chesterton’s essay about rash vows: “The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place.”

Chapter 8 focused on the contagion of willpower, bringing up the intriguing studies on the Naval Academy and Framingham. She described evidence of both good and bad behaviors spreading and she brought up the concept of the “social self.” These ideas are thought-provoking as we are rediscovering what the Greeks took for granted; i.e. that the “self” is only really a “self” in community.

Chapter 9 was a great treatment of the “White Bear” paradigm: telling people not to think about a white bear and then watching them squirm. She discusses a strategy that is often used in dialectical behavioral therapy and/or mindfulness therapies of “Surfing the Urge”; she recommends not fighting negative feelings or urges, but just experiencing them and observing how they affect the body. She covers a lot of work done on this effect, but has significant omission of Jeff Schwartz’s work on OCD.

4 out of 5. While spectacular and eminently usable, the omission of a mature discussion on virtue when writing a book about a virtue leads me to leave off granting a perfect rating.

In the end, she and reminds the reader to be a scientist: that is, to test her claims. I think this was a really effective approach. The Buddhist idea to experience the truth for yourself, or the Psalmists admonition to “taste and see” are (perhaps subconsciously) applied. Though I may quibble with some points, I think the Willpower Instinct is an important book with a very important message. It is a message that Americans desperately need to hear in the cacophony of voices that seems to say nothing other than, “Your failures are inevitable.” I am in total agreement with McGonigal’s mission to enhance willpower, and I agree with the conclusion of her book: “The is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.”

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