Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction audiobook addict.
Everyone thinks that their willpower fails them, often on a regular basis. Those people who say they have a lot of willpower often have the least. Willpower is undeniably good to have and in studies it is correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Dr.McGonigal thankfully does not teach the reader never to “give in” to the things you like. Rather you should ask yourself what it is that you would like to stop/start doing and then focus on that goal. She refers to these goals as willpower challenges. Typical willpower challenges are to go to bed in time, to exercise more, to work instead of checking facebook updates, eat less snacks etc etc.
Most people have many willpower challenges. One important lesson from this book is that you do not have unlimited willpower. Therefore you should not take on too many willpower challenges simultaneously, because that will result in failure.
So what strategies does Dr.McGonigal propose for increasing willpower? This book includes a wealth of advice and I feel pretty confident in claiming that most people will find at least one strategy that helps them. Her first proposed strategy is meditation, which is just not my cup of tea (for me doing meditation would be a willpower challenge on its own). After taking about meditation and breathing exercises she moves on to more obvious candidates: exercise and sufficient sleep. I am sure that you have all heard it before but I will reiterate: exercise is good and getting enough sleep is important for all kinds of things, including willpower. Regarding sleep she also points out that people have started sleeping less in recent decades, and in the same time people have become more obese. In is not inconceivable that the rise in obesity in the recent decades in part is related to reduced willpower which in turn is due to the fact that we sleep less. After all, those evening snacks that we consume in the evening after a stressful day can contain quite a lot of calories.
Dr.McGonigal introduces plenty more strategies for overcoming willpower challenges. The ones I feel were most useful include the following: (1) If you really want say a snack, wait 10 minutes, and then, if you still want it, go ahead and take it. (2) Thinking more about your future self. People are often prone to ignoring the needs of their future selves I don’t care so much how their actions may affect their future selves. (3) Focusing on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. Don’t think of pink elephants! Hard right? Similarly constantly telling yourself not to eat that snack will draw your attention to it, making it harder to resist. It is better to focus on what you should and do.
There are many willpower traps. Perhaps the most obvious one is exposing yourself to the thing you try to avoid. If you want to eat less snacks, don’t keep them in the home cause if you are like me you will eat them, sooner or later. Another trap which I personally used to fall into, is rewarding yourself after a strenuous exercise i.e., now that I have exercised so much I deserve to eat several large burgers and some candy after that =). I am not saying that such a reward in undeserved, only that the calorie intake from a large meal is much larger than the calorie output during exercise. Yet another trap is the “what the hell effect”. Having succumbed to temptation many people say to themselves - what the hell, now that I have started eating this snack I might as well eat the rest...
I sum, this book provides an accessible introduction to willpower, what it is, how it works, and what you can do if you face a willpower challenge. Regardless of whether you decide to utilize any of Dr.McGonigal proposed strategies I believe that merely starting to think and learn about willpower will help you reach your personal goals. It is also nice to know that more or less everyone has willpower issues, and very few (sickly?) people never succumb to temptation.
I thought long about whether I should give this book 4 or 5 stars because there were certain aspect of the book that I did not like. Some central assertions were based almost entirely on anecdotes. I realize that it is a powerful way to drive home your message, but it can also be disingenuous - appealing to people’s emotion. I was also not very pleased with Cain’s description of the neuroscience. She made it seem as though the almond sized amygdala was all there was in the brain and that whether or not this part of the brain lit up under certain circumstances was all important. Yes, yes, I am a cerebellar scientist and am therefore probably overreacting here, but I would have preferred that the neuroscience was left out instead of receiving this very biased account.
Ok, enough of the bad stuff. I did after all give this book 5 stars (which is rare for me). The reason for this is that this book is one of few books I have read in my life that really made me see things, especially myself, in a new light. While I consider myself to be a rather social person who gets along with others I also have many introvert traits. During my time at University I really did not like the weekends because I felt that I had to go out and drink and dance not to be considered strange. I have also always been a little bit ashamed that I can be a “coward”. At least that is how I would have described it to myself before reading this book. Now I prefer to use the terms cautious. I am also a highly adaptable person and I can to some extent transform my behavior based on the circumstances. Again, before reading this book I saw this as being a disingenuous person. After all, you should be who you are and stand up for your ideals no matter what the circumstances, right? While I used to think this I do not anymore. It would be absolutely terrible if everyone spoke their mind all the time. The world needs people who can work in different circumstances, people like me. I guess what I am trying to say in this paragraph is that before I read this book I had consciously and unconsciously bought the extrovert ideal that is so prevalent in our society. I had seen all my introvert traits as weaknesses that I had to combat and conceal. This book made me see that these traits can work to my advantage and it helped me find the proper middle ground where I can better assess my own personality, my strengths and my weaknesses. If you are also an introvert or have introvert kids I really really think you should read this book!
Overall the book is well structures, easy to read and of a good length. Cain starts out by describing the extrovert ideal. To drive this message home (though I think it is a fairly obvious point) she describes a day at a Tony Robbins event where everyone is dancing, speaking with deep confident voices, doing high fives and walking on coal etc. Cain, who is an introvert feels awkward under these circumstances (as would I), and she is not ashamed of it. She states what should be obvious but strangely isn’t, that the world needs people with different qualities. Indeed, under certain circumstances it is better to be more quiet and less assertive. According to studies Cain describes bosses with highly skilled employees are better of if they are introverts, probably because being more quiet allows them to better harvest the qualities and ideas of the employees. Cain also talks about the power of working alone. As one illustrative example, take brainstorming which is normally done in small groups. Actually studies show that you get a better brainstorm if people are allowed to come up with ideas on their own which are later pooled. In certain situations, a group of people can be a constraint rather than a benefit. She also brings up several examples which have been founded by introverts such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Though these are huge companies it is hard to tell whether these examples are representative of the overall picture. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that qualities such as cautiousness, empathy and conscientiousness can be very good qualities to have in some companies. Cain suggests that in some cases introverts can even hold aggressive stances in negotiations because they are less likely to antagonize the other part the way an extrovert outspoken person might.
In the remainder of the book Cain writes about the nature nurture debate (it bothered me that she seems to presume that free will exists, but I forgive her), and about different examples where temperament mattered (ex Wall street crash). The last three chapters serve as a type of guide to introverts and to parents of introverts. What types of conflicts tend to happen between introverts and extroverts and how should these be solved? What strategies can introverts use to avoid falling off the earth altogether? To what extent do you push your introvert child to do extrovert things such as hold presentations? Cain suggest sensible answers to all of these questions and I think that many people would benefit from reading this, and they are genuinely encouraging to introverts and parents of introvert children. I found it encouraging for instance that introvert children are influenced by their parents more than extrovert children. Thus introvert children will benefit more from good parenting than extrovert children (which is nice to know if you are indeed a good parent).
Simon Baron Cohen’s fundamental idea is that in order to prevent evil we must first understand its causes. How was Josef Fritzl capable of locking up his own daugter in his basement and then rape her on a daily basis for more than a decade? The typical reaction to this type of story is that Josef Fritzl is an evil man, and he did what he did because he was evil. But what does it mean when you say that someone is evil, and does deeming someone as an evil person have any positive side effects?
These are of course difficult questions and I don’t think that Baron Cohen provides a complete answer to them (which would have been a lot to hope for). What Baron Cohen does claim is that if we want to prevent evil we must first understand it. He further suggests that individuals, such as Fritzl, who commit horrendous acts probably suffers from a lack of empathy, that is a lacking ability to see the world from another persons perspective. Borderline patients, psychopaths and narcissists are three mental disorders that have a common feature, namely zero empathy. In other words they are more or less incapable of seeing the world from another persons perspective and therefore they may not get the same “gut response” when they hear about Fritzl.
Many people lack empathy, but not all of them endorse in “evil”. Other factors such as upbringing and attachments to caregivers can influence whether a person born with deficient empathy becomes an offender or learns how to follow the rules of society despite lacking some of the intuitions that derives from having empathy.
Simon Baron Cohen’s expertize lies in the field of autism which is another mental dissorders characterized by a lack of empathy. Individuals that have a autism spectrum dissorder (this category includes those with asperger syndrome), also behave in ways that reveal a lack of empathy, however, they are often good at systematizing, that is seeing relationships between various variables in the world. Because of this special ability they have benefited the world in many ways
Rather than deeming individuals evil, we should try to understand why evil acts are committed. To look at people with a severe lack of empathy is a good and plausibly fruitful starting point for such an endeavour.
Simon Baron Cohen, is a terrific writer with the ability to convey complex ideas and complex research findings in an accessible and easy to understand way. This book as well as “The essential difference” show that this is indeed the case.