WILLPOWER

REDISCOVERING THE GREATEST HUMAN STRENGTH

Baumeister (Social Psychology/Florida State Univ.; Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, 2010, etc.) and New York Times science journalist Tierney extol the practical wisdom, as buttressed by the findings of modern social science, of willpower.

It wasn’t long ago that the mantra “wretched excess is just barely enough” was on many American lips; but, write the authors, there is an old-fashioned virtue on revival: self-control. Without it, we are often prey to “compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.” Baumeister and Tierney use their appealingly upbeat voice to explain the intricate call-and-response between the failure of self-control and its problematical results, each feeding upon and reinforcing the other. Willpower is what we use to ward off disadvantageous temptations and desires, what allows us to monitor our behavior as social beings. It is also like a muscle in that it becomes fatigued through use and has to be replenished, most easily through sleep and healthy diet. However, even “if self-control is partly a hereditary trait—which seems likely,” it can be nurtured, and the authors submit a variety of tools to revivify self-control, such as setting standards and realistic goals, laying down “bright lines” and behaving consistently through establishing rules and regulations. There is an instructive chapter on the role of glucose in maintaining a vigorous self-control, commonsensical explorations into how self-awareness helps in self-regulation via self-consciousness—“that crucial task for a social animal: comparing our behavior with the standards set by ourselves and our neighbors”—and tricks to conserve the energy that willpower demands: precommitment (what Odysseus used to thwart the Sirens’ song), orderliness and lofty thoughts. Sewn into the social science are a number of engaging stories, from Eric Clapton to David Blaine to Mary Karr, that provide local color if not necessarily helpful roadmaps. Baumeister and Tierney afford readers numerous paths to put their feet on the higher ground of self-control, for “inner discipline leads to outer kindness.”

 

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59420-307-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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