Sunday, April 21, 2013

Willpower: An Ivory Tower Bubble Book

With an Audible credit burning a hole in my pocket and all previous titles either heard or dismissed as unfinishable, I scoured my wish list and came across Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Messrs Baumeister and Tierney. I bought the thing and I'm now about 3 hours into what looks to be a pretty tough, 9-hour slog.

It's not that the writing is bad or the information inaccessible. No, the examples they use are easy to follow and the prose is relatively sprightly for a book like this. It's just that almost everything they say is forehead-smackingly obvious to the average person and staggeringly brilliant to themselves. Sociology fans both, Baumeister and Tierney have discovered that low blood sugar saps your willpower. Wowsers! There's lots more like this in the sections I've heard so far.

They were also stunned to find out that willpower existed in the first place. Back when they started, you see, willpower was sneered at by all thinking people in the universities as an appendage of long-dismissed Victorian prudery. Experiments with undergrads as their test subjects in their labs proved that willpower actually existed. Shocking!

Finally, there's a mix of bigotry and ignorance when they write about anything outside of their field of expertise, such as that is. The text is littered with snide comments about religion, centered around the theme that it's all nonsense and Science! is showing how believers were just witnessing things that sociology can now explain. On top of their Thomist-lessness, they use an example of planning from military history that shows they know nothing at all of military history*.

Frankly, they should stick with their sociology and leave it at that.

Or maybe they should go pick tomatoes with some migrant farm workers.

You see, the most salient feature of the book is not the topic itself, but the way in which the authors congratulate themselves for learning things that Jose Garcia, semi-literate farm worker, probably already knows and certainly uses every day. That sociologists have conducted experiments and analyzed data to prove that self-denial leads to success in life isn't an indication that such an assertion is true, it's an indication that sociology itself may be a complete waste of time. Three hours in, they've managed to breathlessly inform me of things that my ignorant, superstitious, Catholic ancestors knew all along.
By remaining closeted inside this building, we learn about the world.

As for strengthening willpower, we'll see where the book goes. That's the only reason I'm clinging to a hope of finishing it - that there might be some nuggets of wisdom in it after all. So far, the best one has been that willpower can be depleted through use, so if you're trying to give up a vice, give up just one at a time.

I've got the feeling that this book is going to end up like the Koran: A desperate struggle to grind my way through the last half.

It will be a real exercise in willpower to do it.

* - It's no surprise that they're ignorant of military history. Mr. Tierney is an NYT reporter and such ignorance seems to be a prerequisite for the job.


K T Cat said...

I just came across a good tidbit. Your subconscious mind will nag your conscious mind until you at least make a plan to deal with an important issue. The subconscious can't plan, it can only fret.

K T Cat said...

45 minutes farther in, I finally gave up. The theme of the book is, "It works in practice, but will it work in theory?"

For the most part, the authors take things we've all known and then provide experimental data and analysis from the lab to let us know that it's all OK, we can continue to believe what we believe.

That's pretty much a description of most empirical science, but what makes this book so unreadably annoying is that they never acknowledge that accuracy of folk wisdom. Instead, it's only through their experimentation upon each other (it's all about the undergrads undergoing simple behavioral tests) that we can really be sure that quitting smoking, drinking, cursing and eating potato chips all at the same time is probably not going to work.

I'm done with it and on to better things.