IF YOU’RE going on a diet, you’d better start with a sugary drink. That’s the counterintuitive message of Willpower, a fascinating new book by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney exploring the biochemistry of self-control. Baumeister and Tierney argue, based on a considerable body of experimental research, that the ability to resist temptation takes considerable energy – in other words, the willpower to resist calorie-laden food can only come from the consumption of calories in the first place.
This surprising truth doesn’t just matter for those of us with a KitKat Chunky habit we can’t shift – the ability to defer gratification, it turns out, is one of the most powerful predictors of success in life that we have. A 32-year study of 1,000 New Zealanders found that the capacity for self-control in childhood was highly correlated with adult behaviour. Those with low childhood scores often had difficulty managing money and credit in later life and were more often addicted to alcohol or drugs. Old-fashioned lectures about the importance of building character in the young are apparently on the money after all.
Happily, if you were the sort of child to grab for an experimental marshmallow rather than nibble the radish of prudence, there is still hope. Baumeister and Tierney show that self-control can be understood as a muscle, not only in needing energy to perform, but in its ability to be strengthened through exercise. It’s not too late: you can take your flabby willpower to the gym.
That said, the evidence also points to the need to conserve your strength. Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon before trying to lift weights, the strength/muscle theory of willpower suggests that if you are facing hard choices, it’s best not to have to face them all at once. The more decisions you take in a row, the worse they are likely to get. As with resisting the tasty snack, good decisions are hard work for the brain. So-called decision fatigue means that back-to-back meetings could end up being costly for you or your company.
Greater understanding of how to hack human frailty for the better is always welcome, and never more so than now, when we clearly need all the help we can get to return to a more disciplined way of life. Yet for all the insight these findings offer into human psychology, perhaps it’s worth extrapolating them onto the behaviour of nations, too. After all, as the Western debt burden shows, nations have proved far worse than individuals in their ability to make decisions for the long term.
What would thinking of government decisions this way mean? Well, if regular exercise is the key to healthy self-control, then practising restraint even in good economic times makes more sense than relying on crash diets when things turn bad. If hard decisions take energy, and the energy for political decisions is popular support, then we need a political culture that cultivates a steady supply of that energy rather than turning the public mind into the emotional equivalent of junk food, all sickly sweet highs and sudden crashes of interest half an hour later. But most of all, if decisions are so hard to make well then perhaps the best lesson of all would be for the state to make fewer of them. If we find them hard to get right for ourselves, what chance has the man from the ministry got of doing any better?