Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Will Power, Ray Baumeister

Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, is reviewed in this week's NYTimes Book Review. The author is Ray Baumeister, a psychologist, and the reviewer the almost omnnipresent Steve Pinker. The book discusses an experiment from the '60s by psychologist Walter Mischel in which, as Pinker puts it, he "tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two in fifteen minutes." Decades later the now grown children were interviewed. The children who had the foresight and will power to wait for fifteen minutes had, in almost every way, fared better in their lives than the ones who took the immediate reward. They were more successful in their studies and their jobs, had more money, and were happier.

I don't know if Baumeister writes about whether it seems that children are born with or without "will power" or if they had learned it before the age of four from their family situation. I would guess the latter. The subtitle of the book tells us it's message. I think of all the times I've had dessert when someone mentions "saving the icing [or heart of the watermelon} for last versus eating it first. I'm a saver 'til last and have always been. Intuition has always told me that saving the best part last says something about our outlook. But questions arise about whether that's necessarily the best approach. Too many people defer their dream vacation, deprive themselves of some pleasure for this reason or that [good sense financial reasons or from fear of daring]. Few things are either/or. Yes, I believe will power is good, especially when more appropriately called "self discipline." Put money in the IRA but go see the pyramids too. That has been my method and, yes, I'm happy about it -- but no one offered me either one or two marshmallows. I don't remember any discussion in my family about discipline or eating the icing last. My brother eats it first. Maybe the tendency is inborn along many other personality traits.



June -- this is a real good subject to think about. Off hand I would say that we can't take one experiment and determine the fate of individuals -- too many variables not measured. Hmm I'll have to think more about this. -- barbara

June Calender said...

I'm sure the book is based on more than one experiment. That happens to be a striking one that Pinker, as reviewer, chose to write about. But I think it's a complex subject as I tried to suggest. When a book like this is prominently discussed a social statement is being made about attitudes of the time and place. That's an even bigger subject to think about.

Ladydy5 aka: Diane Yates said...

I must have been one of those marshmellow children who took one and waited. It seems as a young person right up to now I have always waited. What kind of success does he say those that waited were more inclined to have?
I waited, I still wait that extra 15 mins and feel very successful, as he said, in my life. Except for eating those marshmellows.

June Calender said...

Diane - if you took the one marshmallow you didn't wait; if you waited 15 minutes you got two. Since you are a waiter, you should have got more education than many of the non-waiters, had more financial success in life, and generally feel more satisfied with how your life has turned out than do many people who were impatient. Of course we can't assume everything is all that black and white -- there are a lot of other factors, as I was trying to say. For some people the chances just don't happen that bring the success they've been waiting for.