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Surprising Science

Exercising the Right Kind of Self-Control

What is this thing called self-control? We speak of exerting will power, of forcing ourselves to go to work, of restraining ourselves and of controlling our temper as if it were an unruly dog.

What’s the Latest Development?


Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reviews a new book on willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In “Willpower”, the authors argue “that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses [such as resisting cookies while hungry] they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles, squeezing a handgrip, and stifling sexual or violent thoughts.”

What’s the Big Idea?

If willpower is a finite resource, it must be rationed out at the most appropriate moments. But what distinguishes good uses of willpower from bad ones? The authors of “Willpower” do not promote a return to Puritanism. “Don’t try to tame every bad habit at once. Watch for symptoms of ego fatigue, because in that recovery period you are especially likely to blow your stack, your budget and your diet.” The authors argue willpower can be trained like a muscle by doing small exercises like staying tidy and keeping a good posture. 


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