Anyone who knows me knows what I think of the field of psychology in general as a "science," let alone my opinion when it comes to the self-help genre, which is why I'm really surprised that Willpower
is not only one of the best books I've read all year, but one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction writing to come along in a while. Willpower
cites enough peer-reviewed studies across several fields from psychology to biology and neuroscience to satisfy even the most skeptical of readers while maintaining a narrative tone that sparks readers' curiosity before elucidating some rather (in retrospect) obvious observations about the workings of the human mind. Far from the tawdry self-help book that it may seem from its description, this book is a report on solid and fascinating social and biological science that incidentally can help people who have "weak wills" get a handle on their lives.
As a historian, I found Baumeister and Teirney's Victorian era cultural history original and intriguing and I think their analysis of the religious influence on the notion of self-control spot on for Western societies. In fact, a lot of the book's strength stems from placing modern notions and values about control, dieting and work ethic in historical context and across cultures as well. For a cynic in the field like myself, I liked that the overall tone of the work was inherently skeptical. Baumeister and Teirney are quick to question and point out potential flaws in some of the rather astonishing findings of some of the studies they present and seem to intuitively predict the calls of "BS!" that are likely to first come across the reader's mind. They then professionally cite other studies done either by themselves or other researchers that address those very issues to confirm the findings. The result is a pretty air-tight argument for the resurrection of the Victorian age's notion of Willpower as an (almost) physical thing. Along the way, the authors include interesting anecdotes from nearly every walk of life, from stand-up comics to Oprah Winfrey, college students and professors to street magicians highlighting important new discoveries in the science of how and why we do what we do. Willpower
represents the best of the new wave of non-fiction that bridges the academic divisions between subjects in the attempt at finding new ways of thinking about familiar things. I think the future remains bright for interdisciplinary works of this kind. One small thing that was odd to me: the author credits in the book go to Baumeister and Tierney whose studies form the core of the findings in this work and are referred to in third person throughout. Is this a relic of high school english where we never use the word "I" in academic papers or is this standard in academic works in psychology? For my own personal taste, it makes the work feel a little like false modesty. It also feels pretty awkward. Not a big deal; most of the time I was able to just forget who the author was and assume a third person perspective.
Highly recommend for disorganized people, people who are generally discontent with their level of productivity or people trying to kick bad habits. The studies alone are enough to change your behaviors. Thankfully, Baumeister and Tierney leave the preaching to others.