PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Remarkable results grew out of a simple experiment conducted by an American psychologist in the 1960s, involving marshmallows and a group of four-year-olds. The children were tempted with a devilish offer: they could have one marshmallow to eat now, or wait 15 minutes and receive two. A few children heroically held out, and reaped their sweet reward.

Then an interesting thing happened. The children who had shown the greatest self-control at age four went on, years later, to score 210 points higher on the SAT than their weaker-willed friends. In fact, write the authors: 'Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than [a] student's IQ or SAT score.'

From that startling beginning, Willpower goes on to study the workings of self-control, and the various factors that can strengthen and weaken our ability to harness it in our lives. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist, and John Tierney, a science writer with The New York Times, conclude that: 'Most major problems, personal and social, centre on failure of self-control' - domestic violence, substance abuse, high divorce rates, crime and a host of other problems, large and small, that harry so many lives.

'Improving willpower,' the co-authors write, 'is the surest way to a better life.'

They proceed to drive the point home with clearly written chapters of anecdotes bolstered by science, touching on David Blaine's epics of endurance, Eric Clapton's victory over alcoholism, Oprah Winfrey's struggles with dieting, and 19th-century explorer Henry Stanley's unrelenting determination to trek through African jungles in the face of every imaginable danger.

Based on research first reported in 1998, the authors compare willpower to a muscle - both are fuelled by glucose and apt to let you down when that fuel runs out. A host of experiments shows that your willpower depends in part on how much of your glucose supply has been used up by a long, trying day of making decisions and fighting temptations.

For example, researchers have found that prisoners brought before a parole board early in a morning session win parole 65 per cent of the time; those who come late in the day get parole a mere 10 per cent of the time. The authors conclude that judges, suffering decision fatigue, take the safe route rather than grapple further with tricky cases.

Stanley's days in Africa were grim rounds of fever, mutinous porters, poisonous snakes, hails of spears and other afflictions. Yet he insisted on shaving every morning, convinced that external order was linked to inner self-discipline.

The authors relate a host of modern experiments that prove Stanley right: little things such as good posture, keeping a neat home and maintaining regular routines correlate time and again with improved willpower and more productive lives.

Yes, but my grandmother knew that, a reader may want to exclaim. Even so, Willpower puts many home truths on an interesting scientific footing that repays reading. This is not overtly a self-help book, but it performs much the same function with many useful suggestions and techniques.

Yet one feels something missing: we know there are techniques to strengthen willpower, but we don't know why some people are better at it than others - where does their drive come from? Perhaps that's fodder for a sequel.