All posts tagged willpower

Book review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink.

This book explores some of the complexities of what motivates humans. It attacks a stereotype that says only financial rewards matter, and exaggerates the extent to which people adopt that fallacy. His style is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, but with more substance than Gladwell.

The book’s advice is likely to cause some improvement in how businesses are run and in how people choose careers. But I wonder how many bosses will ignore it because their desire to exert control over people outweighs their desire to create successful companies.

I’m not satisfied with the way he and others classify motivations as intrinsic and extrinsic. While feelings of flow may be almost entirely internally generated, other motivations that he classifies as intrinsic seem to involve an important component of feeling that others are rewarding you with higher status/reputation.

Shirking may have been a been an important problem a century ago for which financial rewards were appropriate solutions, but the nature of work has changed so that it’s much less common for workers to want to put less effort into a job. The author implies that this means standard financial rewards have become fairly unimportant factors in determining productivity. I think he underestimates the importance they play in determining how goals are prioritized.

He believes the changes in work that reduced the importance of financial incentives was the replacement of rule-following routine work with work that requires creativity. I suggest that another factor was that in 1900, work often required muscle-power that consumed almost as much energy as a worker could afford to feed himself.

He states his claims vaguely enough that they could be interpreted as implying that broad categories of financial incentives (including stock options and equity) work poorly. I checked one of the references that sounded like it might address that (“When performance-related pay backfires”), and found it only dealt with payments for completing specific tasks.

His complaints about excessive focus on quarterly earnings probably have some value, but it’s important to remember that it’s easy to err in the other direction as well (the dot-com bubble seemed to coincide with an unusual amount of effort at focusing on earnings 5 to 10 years away).

I’m disappointed that he advises not to encourage workers to compete against each other without offering evidence about its effects.

One interesting story is the bonus system at Kimley-Horn and Associates, where any employee can award another employee $50 for doing something exceptional. I’d be interested in more tests of this – is there something special about Kimley-Horn that prevents abuse, or would it work in most companies?

Book review: Breakdown of Will, by George Ainslie.

This book analyzes will, mainly problems connected with willpower, as a form of intertemporal bargaining between a current self that highly values immediate temptation and future selves who prefer that current choices be more far-sighted. He contrasts simple models of rational agents who exponentially discount future utility with his more sophisticated and complex model of people whose natural discount curve is hyperbolic. Hyperbolic discounting causes time-inconsistent preferences, resulting in problems such as addiction. Intertemporal bargains can generate rules which bundle rewards to produce behavior more closely approximating the more consistent exponential discount model.

He also discusses problems associated with habituation to rewards, and strategies that can be used to preserve an appetite for common rewards. For example, gambling might sometimes be rational if losing money that way restores an appetite for acquiring wealth.

Some interesting ideas mentioned are that timidity can be an addiction, and that pain involves some immediate short-lived reward (to draw attention) in addition to the more obvious negative effects.

For someone who already knows a fair amount about psychology, only small parts of the book will be surprising, but most parts will help you think a bit clearer about a broad range of problems.

Book review: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.
This well-written book might help a few people lose a significant amount of weight, and many to lose a tiny bit.
Some of his advice seems to demand as much willpower for me as a typical diet (e.g. eat slowly), but he gives many small suggestions and advises us to pick and choose the most appropriate ones. There’s enough variety and novelty among his suggestions that most people are likely to find at least one feasible method to lose a few pounds.
A large fraction of his suggestions require none of the willpower that a typical diet requires, but will be rejected by most people because their ego will cause them to insist that only people less rational than them are making the kind of mistakes that the book’s suggestions will fix.
Most of the book’s claims seem to be backed up by careful research. But I couldn’t find any research to back up the claim that approaches which cause people to eat 100 calories per day less for days will cause people to lose 10 pounds in ten months. He presents evidence that such a diet doesn’t need to make people feel deprived over the short time periods they’ve been studied. But there’s been speculation among critics of diet books that our bodies have a natural “set point” weight, and diets which work for a while have no long-term effect because lower body weights cause increased desire to return to the set point. This book offers only weak anecdotal evidence against that possibility.
But even if it fails as a diet book, it may help you understand how the taste of your food is affected by factors other than the food itself.