Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Review: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first came across Kelly McGonigal through a TED video where she explained how to make stress a positive force, rather than the dangerous negative force it usual is. In that talk, she discusses how things like mindfulness and acceptance can help channel stress into healthier channels. I found the research she discussed intriguing and some of the suggestions helpful. So when I decided to read her book, I was hoping for a similar outcome. And I was rewarded.

I don’t think, for the most part, that I have serious willpower issues. But I am interested in the psychology and neuroscience of self-control, as well as how to improve our mental practices to lead happier lives. So while this book can be a self-help guide for someone struggling with their willpower in terms of quitting smoking, dieting, or watching too much TV, it also discusses some of the research behind the methods that might work best at helping people with those issues. She has many practical, DIY sections in each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your own life. It’s not too ‘science-heavy’ in terms of the studies, indeed I would have liked more on that, but she does summarize and discuss the major work on self-control, willpower, and behavior change.

I did find myself making use of the ideas in my regular life. For example, I was setting up an assignment for my students on my school’s online course management system. There is an option that you can run the students’ papers through a software program that checks for plagiarism. If you select this option, the students are warned that their assignments will be run through this anti-plagiarism program. As I was thinking about whether to make use of this, I recalled McGonigal’s discussion of how the perception that many others are cheating tends to increase the chances that you will cheat. I wondered if the advertised use of this anti-plagiarism software sent the signal to the students that many students are cheating (after all, that’s why we need software to find it, right?) and so actually have the perverse effect of increasing the chances that a student will cheat. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but I decided against using the software and will instead rely on my well-honed skills of ferreting out cheating.

I recommend this book for those interested in an intelligent laymen discussion of the psychology and science of self-control and willpower or those looking for some practical tips on to improve their own self-control. That said, the book could have been a little shorter; it felt a bit stretched out to me. McGonigal has quick-paced, casual style with many funny and interesting anecdotes that give life to the science she is discussing.

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