By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Kelly McGonigal
Narration by: Walter Dixon
Kelly McGonigal teaches the psychology of willpower at Stanford University. The introduction to her book, “The Willpower Instinct”, suggests McGonigal’s classes are well attended and often repeated by students interested in the subject. By classifying willpower as an instinct, it becomes defined as an innate human characteristic. McGonigal argues that this innate human characteristic is malleable; i.e. like a hammered piece of metal, willpower can be transformed.
Three things come to mind as one listens to McGonigal’s audio-book. One, everyone has willpower. Two, willpower is an instinct with variable levels of strength. Three, willpower is trainable. The inference of these three things is that “The Willpower Instinct” can change one’s life. McGonigal uses a number of sociological studies to argue that, with correct diagnosis and treatment, willpower can be strengthened to mitigate aberrant human behavior.
McGonigal believes addiction, suicide, inappropriate anger, extreme emotional dysfunction, and other psychological dependencies can be ameliorated by training “The Willpower Instinct”. The training is based on the Socratic instruction of “know thy self”. McGonigal cites a number of sociological studies that explain how individual willpower can be strengthened to fight harmful psychological dependencies. By understanding one’s self and the nature of willpower, McGonigal offers a number of personal exercises that can change harmful behavior.
For example, McGonigal tells the story of Leo Tolstoy’s white bear. Tolstoy is said to have been told to sit in a corner for 30 minutes as an initiation requirement for joining a club called the “White Polar Bear Club”. As he sits in the corner, Tolstoy is told to “not think” about a white bear. Being told not to think of a white bear has the opposite effect. This counter intuitive insight led to the paradox of mental suppression, experimentally proven by Professor Daniel Wegner.
When someone is told “not to think of something”, their instinctive response is to only think about that something. McGonigal explains how a person who is addicted to cigarettes is told to imagine a pack of cigarettes, pull the pack out of their pocket, un-wrap the cigarette package, tap out a cigarette, light a match, put the flame to the cigarette, take a deep drag, and expel cigarette smoke in a billowing cloud. Each step is to be thought of for ten minutes. The time taken is excruciating but the consequence of the experiment is shown to reduce the urge to smoke. Rather than suppressing the desire to smoke, the experiment explores the minutia of smoking. It is an exercise in facing rather than suppressing addiction.
There are a number of interesting exercises in McGonigal’s book, based on conducted experiments, that are useful for understanding what one can do to strengthen their willpower. However, as in all sociological studies alleged to prove something, there is room for interpretation. McGonigal mentions an experiment done with students that is inferred to conclude that gender discrimination is as prevalent today as in the past.
The basis for the conclusion is a question asked of a group of college students. The question is asked in two different ways. One, are women better at home than in the workplace? The second way of asking the question is – are some women better at home than in the work place? The answer most often given for the first question is no but the second is more frequently answered yes. The conclusion drawn by the study is that gender discrimination still exists. Though one may certainly believe that is true, it is not proven by these two questions. One might have answered the second question as yes because it is equally true of some men; i.e. some men are better at home than in the work place. The point is that sociological studies are like the bible; i.e. subject to interpretation.
Putting criticism of sociological experiments aside, McGonigal offers some useful insight to how one can improve their behavior by using psychological exercises to strengthen willpower. One is inclined to believe Kelly McGonigal’s introduction that says classes are well attended and repeated. There are some useful exercises for improving willpower in “The Willpower Instinct”.