Book Review – The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, a work by Kelly McGonigal, does exactly what it says on the tin. Laid out in ten chapters structured after the ten-week course, “The Science of Willpower”, that she led at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, the text is informed by research and refined by real world tests of the material by people in actual rather than lab conditions – always a bonus for research on people, who’ll happily act one way when a research subject, and totally differently at home.

Each chapter takes up a particular facet of willpower, from the broad overview in chapter one, to chapter three’s explanation of the muscle model of willpower, to chapter five’s tearing down of the ‘pleasure’ center of the brain (Spoiler: It’s not really pleasure, it’s promise-of-pleasure. Biology is weird.) willpower is seen from many different angles, giving an excellent view of the big picture in digestible chunks.

Some of the information from studies I had been previously aware of, but it’s good to have it all compiled in one place, and much of it had clearer / more extensive explanations than my prior understanding. Some of it, like chapter 4’s explanation of willpower hypocrisy, was entirely novel to me. It makes intuitive sense that feeling like we’ve done a good and difficult thing enables us to convince ourselves that we deserve a treat or break from our discipline, but it’s also frustrating that biology should work that way. Still, the awareness I’ve gained of the phenomena from Professor McGonigal’s book seems likely to better enable me to stay on track.

That the brain has numerous tricks built in, to keep us from resisting temptations that were harmful to resist in the ancestral environment is not news, but the number and insidiousness of them was surprising to me. That contemplating being virtuous tomorrow will enable the aforementioned license to sin, for example, was both novel, and depressing. We really are built for an environment of scarcity, where resisting the urge to grab it with both hands was the wrong move, and this is doing us no favor in the modern world.

Lest I convince you all is doom and gloom, worry not, dear reader. Each chapter describes a facet of willpower, and how to use it to your advantage. Delaying your gratification, thinking about why you’re engaging in this feat of mind over mind, reorienting your “I won’t” efforts (spend the next thirty seconds not thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear) to be “I will” efforts, even forgiving yourself rather than treating yourself to a heaping plate full of guilt, can all lead you to be the sort of person whose iron will is the envy of her friends.

Well-written, thoroughly researched, and humorous and serious in just the right measures, The Willpower Instinct is a book you’ll want to exercise your will to start, and might find yourself having to do the same to put it down. I expect I’ll be rereading it soon, because I charged through it in days, and I want to take a more leisurely trek through, trying each technique and giving them some time to show their stuff. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who ever wants to perform actions by choice, rather than on autopilot. Unless you’re already a scientist in this field, you’re sure to learn something, and I suspect you’ll find what you learn quite useful as you walk your path in this temptation-dripping world we’ve built from the ancestral environment brought up in chapter one.

On Being Trapped in Physics

The other day, I did something I predicted wouldn’t work out well, but I felt compelled to. Many times, when I’ve been rolling around Berkeley I’ll see some folks with a pamphlet stand, usually in Ashby station. This day, I saw them out by the Berkeley Bowl, and their signboard said, “Will Suffering End?”.

If you know me, you know that ending suffering is kind of a big deal to me, and while I didn’t think our answers to the question would dovetail, I had a few minutes. I approached, and pointing to their board said, “Yes. Well, at least, I hope so. Making it happen is what I’m about. What’s your plan for fixing it?”

It was getting people to read the bible, as I’d predicted.

This is not an essay on religion and a lack thereof, though.

The conversation evolved through several steps of talking past each other. A refrain Rose kept returning to was free will, and how wonderful it was that God had equipped us with it. While I can see the intuitive appeal of the concept as having explanatory power, and in making one feel good both about one’s decisions, and doing things like maintaining prisons with poor conditions for those who break the social rules, it’s not a concept that I find useful in thinking about the world.

I think, as the title may have suggested, that we humans, along with all other life, all things in fact in this universe, are trapped in physics. We can do nothing other than what we do, and any claim otherwise that I’ve ever heard resolves to incoherency. A ball, released on an inclined plane, will roll to the bottom. Today we know that this is a result of gravity, and the conversion of potential to kinetic energy. We can take a few facts about the hill, the ball, and the local strength of gravity, and predict how fast the ball will roll, when it will reach any given point along the path it will follow, and how far it will go past the bottom of the hill. It makes no sense to postulate that this time, the ball will roll uphill and stay there, remaining smugly stationary at the top of the incline.

I can imagine a time earlier in history, when we didn’t understand anything about gravity, inclined planes, or conservation of energy, in which that might have been, if not a reasonable bet, at least one that a person couldn’t be sure wouldn’t happen this time. Such people might well have ascribed free will to the ball, and a strong desire to be at the bottom of hills to balls in general.

Nowadays, as mentioned, we do know better. Nobody with a modern education would bet on a ball to roll uphill, nor a slinky to climb stairs, nor even a virus to reconsider infecting a cell and injecting its dna for replication.

And yet somehow these people, who should be aware from school classes that the laws of nature are Laws, inviolate in every case we’ve ever checked them in, and that they are made of atoms, that form molecules, that form cells, that form organs, that form people, somehow think we can be free of that inevitability. After all, they can observe themselves debate their options, and they “could have” done other than they chose to.

I think a lot of this intuition comes from observing people make different choices in the “same” circumstances. Since you spent fifteen minutes not eating the marshmallow to get a second one, why couldn’t Billy in the next test room over? Everything in the room was the same, same table, same chair, same marshmallow.

Different Billy.

You had a stable home life, and parents who taught you some things about self-control, and a decent native temperament. Billy comes from a broken home, the parent he lived with working overtime to make ends meet and leaving him with the electric babysitter. His native temperament? Not so good for delaying gratification.

In our society we seem to regard this as something Billy should do something about, or at least feel bad about, but it’s not like he had any choice in any of those things, and given those as inputs, his choice to eat the marshmallow was in fact quite predictable. He could not have chosen other wise – he simply wasn’t equipped to, and it makes no sense to blame him for it.

I’ve had this perspective for a while, and I think it’s useful in dealing with other people – they all have their backstories, and knowing that helps me to be a kinder and more thoughtful version of myself when interacting with them. It suggests to me that we should be using very, very different methods to respond to people who break the law, and that our society should be structured fairly differently, although I don’t have an exact model of what it should look like. Certainly far more effort should be put into designing our incentives.

In reality, we’re no different from the ball and the incline, aside from having more complicated and harder to see ‘inclines’ driving us. Rose was spreading the word of the Lord because her backstory and decision process told her it was the right thing to be doing. She couldn’t have done otherwise than to smile and tell me about how wonderful free will was, and I’d be foolish to blame her for it.

Why write all this up? My hope is that other people catch some of this, and think a little more about what they want the shape of the world to take, and align their actions to driving other people’s towards better inclines than they might have, using their native reactions. Just because you can’t make a decision other than one you’re going to make, doesn’t mean I can’t try to shift what the outcome of that process is with my words, after all. You’re not the same person who started reading this, and I hope you’re a wiser one.

Think about it.

Strange New Brightonians…

Life is an absurd series of billiard ball bounces. As I mentioned, in my first try at college, I went on adventures all over the place, including to New Hampshire, to a group house of furries called Berry Grove. While I was there, I met a future boyfriend of mine, Tad. We’ve fallen more out of touch than I endorse, and that saddens me; he’s a good guy and I’ve bounced off him a few times, to my benefit.
After I started dating Tad, I got interested in meeting his other partner, a man living in Pennsylvania. When a friend of mine went on a trip down there to meet her boyfriend, I tagged along to meet Theddie. I spent the weekend at his sister’s trailer, where I also met Kierstal, who I would date later.
Theddie was kind of amazing. He’d been dumped on by his history and health, and kept struggling against to be a man full of joy and life. He made most of his earned income through being an artist, but he was also a brilliant chef, and like me, a jack of all trades. Most of the time I spent around him, we spent in a house in New Brighton, where I moved, having nowhere else to go, after a falling out with Martina.
He welcomed me into a borrowed home, which we spent a fair amount of my time there fixing. That house had been trashed. The owner’s son, who went by the nickname “Shaky” due to having a tremor from malnutritive choices, had kept a dog inside the bedroom all winter long. Not, the dog stayed in the bedroom, except to go outside. The dog lived in the bedroom 24/7. There were ammonia crystals in there. Awful. Prior residents had put holes in the wall, and fixed them with cereal boxes. There was another hole in a different wall that let in the worst infestation of fleas I’ve ever seen – walk on the floor and watch your legs look peppered.
Not that the upper house was much better – in some ways it was worse, since Theddie started fixing his place when he moved in. The upper house didn’t see attention until it was condemned, filled with old newspapers, wrecked furniture, car models in boxes, and what I will genteelly call, “cat byproduct”. Shaky’s dad was a hoarder, and Shaky didn’t care / actively interfered with cleaning efforts.
Honestly, aside from having talked his dad into letting Theddie and Kierstal occupy the lower house, Shaky was short on good qualities. He knew Theddie from a gaming store they frequented, and he’d dated Kierstal, which is how they met each other. He was paranoid, and not a little vicious, and he hated me; after Kierstal broke up with him, she eventually started dating me, which he regarded as my having “stolen” her from him.
In and of itself his hatred of me was fine, but he fantasized online about harming / killing me. With that, with the way his paranoia led him to actually act in the world rather than idly fantasize (he once cut his way through a screen on his back porch to have an escape route because he heard us passing by), and with the way he treated his father (“The old guy”, in his words – a wallet who could drive him places) give him the dubious notability of being the only person I decided the world would be better off without enough to pick up a sword and start walking. Theddie and Kierstal talked me down, which I thoroughly appreciate from my current perspective, years later. Current me would definitely regret bringing harm or death to someone who was himself already harmed by the world, and the world would not, I think, be better for it.
We also had an issue with the woman who lived on the other side of the alley / street that ran behind the lower house. We had many cats, who lived indoor/outdoor lives. She hated free roaming cats. This would have been a minor neighborly dispute, aside from the fact that she had access to poison and a willingness to use it. SNA (Subject Not Available, all the cats in that litter had web-related names) seized and convulsed to her death in Kierstal’s arms, and that was enough to convince us that they needed to be indoor cats, since the environment was particularly hostile.
That was towards the end of my time in New Brighton, but there is one more event I wanted to recount in this piece. As I mentioned, Shaky had once dated Kierstal and still sought her affections, which cashed out to him doing her favors. The last was when she asked to borrow his Starcraft disc so she could play it. He loaned her the case for the game, which contained a burned CD, hand labelled, “Little Angels”. When inserted, it proved to be full of child porn. This was not a little shocking to us, and we discussed what to do about it for a while, eventually deciding to bring it to the police in town. Not long after that, they raided the upper house, leading Shaky out in cuffs and causing the building to be condemned. When they went through all of his things, they eventually found seven hundred gigabytes of child porn on burned cds – a truly staggering amount, considering he was on dial-up internet. I don’t know how he’d accumulated so much, given that even dial-up internet wasn’t commonly available to consumers nine years earlier, that being the length of time he would have had to have been continuously downloading, according to a back of the envelope calculation I did at the time. Even today, more than a decade later, I find it hard to believe how very invested he was.
So Shaky went to jail, and Theddie, a number of his friends he called in for help, and I cleaned out the upper house, a nightmare of trashed paper, furniture, and worse things. We managed to get the house to a point that the condemnation was revoked, and Shaky’s father was able to spend the rest of his life in it; it was not in any way an easy task. It was made a little easier, in the sense of not getting worse as it went, because the police had had little regard for the cats when they came through, letting them all out into the world. We attempted to recover them where possible, but even this was ill-fated. One of them, a very sweet calico known as, “the Hippie cat” showed up across the street one day. I tried to call her to me, and she started to come, just before a car sped up the hill we were on, and crushed her in front of me.
New Brighton has a lot of bad memories for me.
Kierstal and I moved on not terribly long after that, and while leaving Theddie was painful, we had reason to go and many unhappy remembrances urging us on. Martina was in need of someone to work for her, and I had both gotten over our last falling out, and felt a drive towards earning income again, so leave we did.