[video] Kelly McGonigal on willpower

by Bobertron1 min read17th Jun 201210 comments


Personal Blog

the video

Author and Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, talks about strategies from her new book "The WillPower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It" as part of the Authors@Google series. Topics include dieting/weight loss, health, addiction, quitting smoking, temptation, procrastination, mindfulness, stress, sleep, cravings, exercise, self-control, self-compassion, guilt, and shame.

I'm posting this because akrasia, procrastination and willpower are often discussed on LW. I haven't read the book, but for those that are interested "The Willpower Instinct" and "Maximum Willpower" are, from what I can tell, exactly the same books.

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[-][anonymous]10y 24


The model of the brain is that there are different parts that want different things. When the parts disagree, we have a "willpower challenge". In this scenario, the decision is kicked to some higher subroutine in the prefrontal cortex, which takes energy.

The speaker presented five experiments (actual studies associated with each point):

  • Sleep and meditation: For former addicts, highly correlated with resisting relapse.
    Why? fMRI reveals sleep lack leads to less activity in the prefrontal cortex, where willpower challenges are decided.

  • Feeling regret diminishes future willpower. Better to be mindful of a lapse, and non judgmentally develop a positive intention for the future. (experiments about dieters and drinkers).

  • Concretely imagining and identifying with your future self helps you develop willpower. Specific exercises were suggested, could be useful for meet-ups? (around 27-36 minute mark for this point)

  • Defensive pessimism. Imagine how/why you will fail at your goal. Imagine concrete steps. Write it all down, revise when something different happens.

  • Visualize strong cravings as a wave. Watch the wave, and let it pass by. Doing this under stressful circumstances helped cut future stress-related urges. (around 46 mins)

Defensive pessimism. Imagine how/why you will fail at your goal. Imagine concrete steps. Write it all down, revise when something different happens.

Gads, no. I've got a brain that sees things potential problems. I've concluded that spending your time picturing failure is a great way to invoke akrasia - by focusing on failure scenarios, you develop an availability bias for failure scenarios. I call that the "futility bias".

I need to spend more time imagining how things will succeed.

I hope you realize the irony in imagining yourself failing at the imagining yourself failing exercise.

If imagining a failure brings akrasia, what's wrong about imagining oneself failing at doing undesired things?

The dangerous thing is imagining oneself failing at things one wants to happen.

Thanks, this is a very useful summary.

For those who watched the video or are familiar with her work, did it strike you as strange that both of these things are correlated with increased willpower in the future: (1) forgiving yourself and not being critical of failures of willpower and (2) being pessimistic and envisioning failures for the future? Just trying to work out in my mind why they would both be effective.


I haven't watched the video and am not familiar with her work, but I have experimented with both strategies in the context of mood management, which might be similar, and I have indeed found that both strategies can work in that context. I've also found that envisioning failure doesn't work this way when I end up obsessing over it; it only works when I can accept that OK, I might fail, this is what failure would look like, I can live with that.

My own tentative theory is that the important part is accepting, rather than avoiding thinking about, the potential consequences of failure. (Or, come to that, of success.) I have no data to support this, though.

Imagining a specific failure, bringing it to a near mode, can remove the fear of unknown. Without fear, it is easier to work. On the other hand, imagining a failure is priming oneself to fail.

Which influence is stronger?

Maybe the result depends on how exactly, and how long is one imagining things. Methods similar on surface could bring different results.

Usually failure is a lot less terrible in reality than what you imagine.. or when it is terrible you tend to very prepared for your task. If you have too much optimism you don't tend to be prepared enough and when you fail it is hard to try again. Being realistic and basing your life on reality is much more powerful than being an optimistic wishful thinker.
Deep down your true self knows you are trying to deceive it. And remember what you can really accomplish if you just progress one little step at a time..

if you imagine a failure you can surely imagine a way to avoid the failure.. that is really the point.. to be prepared.. and also to be prepared to realize that the failure is not really not so bad and is really a part of every endeavor.. without it there is no success. If you imagine you always only succeed you will accomplish a lot less.