Author Topic: Baumeister and Tierney's Willpower (ego depletion)  (Read 3213 times)

Offline costello

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Baumeister and Tierney's Willpower (ego depletion)
« on: October 29, 2011, 09:04:29 AM »
Anyone else reading Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I bought the book after hearing an interview on the radio. I've read the first few chapters.

In the interview he (can't remember which author was being interviewed) talked about 'ego depletion' - the concept that you can exhaust your supply of willpower or self-control for the day. So if you have a job that requires you to exert self-control all day to avoid strangling customers or coworkers, you may be more likely to give into temptation later if someone offers you a piece of cake. You've spend your limited will-power controlling yourself at work.

I'm a low-carber (50 year old obese woman) who lost about 40 pounds in a few months in 2008 then stalled. In the ensuing years 20 pounds have come back on. This June I decided to crack down, using a combination of low carb, IF, and even a bit of low food reward eating a la Stephan Guyenet. 20 pounds came off easily and quickly. I was closing in on 210 pounds when I decided to experiment with the cold showers. I was drawn to the cold showers just for the mental toughness part of it. I think I have an inner stoic (in the modern sense of the word) who I've neglected over the last decade or so. Also, I'm going into my second winter without a furnace (can't afford to replace it right now), so I figured this would help with the adjustment to the cold. (I heat the bathroom with a space heater before showering.) In a week and a half or so, I'm up to taking my entire shower, every day, in cold water. Lasts about 5 minutes I'd guess.

Trouble is the weight loss stopped as soon as the showers started. I've actually gained almost 4 pounds back. I'm finding it much harder to stick with low-carb and IF, and as a result I'm gaining. I'm wondering if I'm seeing ego depletion in action here.

I don't want to give up the cold showers. But I also want to lose weight. Any thoughts?

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: Baumeister and Tierney's Willpower (ego depletion)
« Reply #1 on: October 29, 2011, 09:34:15 PM »
Hi costello,

I'm not familiar with the book by Baumeister and Tierney, but it sounds interesting. I can suggest a few ideas of my own about "willpower", along the lines of what I discussed in my interview with with Julien Smith.  Willpower is like a needs to be exercised to get stronger.  But getting stronger at anything -- lifting weights, improving eyesight, resisting stress or temptation -- doesn't happen overnight.  It's a gradual process that takes weeks or months, not days, before you see real, sustainable progress.

The concept of "ego depletion" that you refer to seems to assume that we have a fixed supply of expendable energy that allows us to resist daily stress.  This may be accurate as a static view of what the immediate response to stress might be for a given individual.  What it overlooks, I think, is our ability to grow this reserve by progressive exposure to increasing stress.  

Cold showers represent a stress that people will respond to differently.  In some cases, it might produce an immediate response in terms of thermogenesis and release of adrenaline that can suppress appetite.  But in other cases, the initial discomfort might not be accompanied by these compensating benefits.   A lot may depend on individual metabolism and psychology. Based on these differences, it might take longer for some people to "adapt". And it might fail to work at all to deliver these benefits, in certain cases.  But I would  not take your very initial response as necessarily indicative of what cold showers might do for you in the long term.  I found that after several weeks, cold showers definitely increased my resilience to stress in general -- particularly in how I responded to sudden, unanticipated stresses thrown at me -- insults, bad days or whatever.   My reserve increased.  Hence, less need for pleasures like comfort food, alcohol, etc. to calm the nerves.  And more energy for physical activities like running, rock climbing and social interactions.

So I would take note of your initial reaction and weight gain, but not be too quick to throw in the towel on cold showers and blame it on "ego depletion".  If you stay with it, and find other ways to test your growing "stoic" mental toughness, I'm sure your willpower muscle will grow rather than wither. (You might try adding in some type of intense exercise).  There is evidence that these sorts of practices upregulate receptors and physiology that help increase your sense of well-being and lower your body fat "set point". (See my article, "Change your receptors, change your set point").  Of course, as with any application of hormesis, there is a balance. You have to be careful not to overdo and to get periodic rest.  But if you take the long run view, I think you'll be able to get back on track with your weight loss program, and you'll derive other benefits as well.

Good luck!

« Last Edit: October 29, 2011, 09:44:25 PM by Todd Becker »

Offline costello

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Re: Baumeister and Tierney's Willpower (ego depletion)
« Reply #2 on: November 08, 2011, 09:14:33 AM »
Thanks, Todd. I think the Willpower book does advocate the idea that willpower can increase with practice. I don't think I would have been so excited about it otherwise. Unfortunately I haven't made much headway in reading it. They keep irritating me by mentioning glucose as a way to replete your willpower. Apparently if you deplete a college student's willpower then feed him a milkshake, it'll reverse the ego depletion. As a low-carber I find the constant references to glucose to be irritating - which means I have to keep setting the book aside until my willpower builds up again.  ;)

I'm continuing with the cold showers and am actually finding them a bit addicting. I'm not sure what that's about. I'm thinking about adding a second one in the evening. I'm also successfully back on track with a low-carb diet and frequent IF.

I'm trying to take your suggestion to add some exercise. It doesn't take much to qualify as "intense" at my current level of fitness.  ;)