Tagged: Roy F. Baumeister


Remember why you are doing something. Focus on meaning.

Nietzsche was right: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In a classic experiment conducted by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children asked to pretend that they were guards on duty were able to stand longer, and children asked to pretend that they were going to a store had an easier time memorizing words. More recently, a team of researchers led by Kentaro Fujita, replicated and refined these findings:

They used a series of methods to move people’s mental processes to either high or low levels. High levels were defined by abstraction and long-term goals. Low levels were the opposite. For instance, people were asked to reflect either on why they did something or on how they did something. “Why” questions push the mind up to higher levels of thinking and a focus on the future. “How” questions bring the mind down to low levels of thinking and a focus on the present. … These manipulations of mental state had no inherent relation to self-control. Yet self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high-level terms, and got worse among those who thought in low-level terms. Different measures were used in assorted experiments, but the results were consistent. After engaging in high-level thinking, people were more likely to pass up a quick reward for something better in the future. When asked to squeeze a handgrip, they could hold on longer. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against selfcontrol, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason why religious people score relatively high in measures of selfcontrol, and why nonreligious people…can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals. [Baumeister & Tierney]

The evidence recalls a scene in The Godfather Part II, in which Michael Corleone, visiting Cuba on the eve of the revolution, is torn about whether to make an investment there:

Michael Corleone:       I saw a strange thing today. Some rebels  were being arrested. One of them pulled the pin on a grenade. He took himself and the captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.

Hyman Roth:               What does that tell you?

Michael Corleone:       It means they could win.

Further reading:

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the    Greatest Strength. Penguin


A commitment contract is “a contract that binds you into achieving a personal goal.” You set a goal, decide the stakes, designate a referee, and engage supporters. Stakes include money and/or reputation. Recipients of the money include individuals, charities, and “anti-charities” (organizations you’d hate to donate to).

Commitment contracts are an effective way of spurring new habits. In just one example, a study of more than two thousand smokers found that “the smokers offered a commitment contract were nearly 40 percent more likely to be nicotine-free after a year” [Baumeister and Tierney].

The commitment contract was pioneered by the Yale economist Dean Karlan and his colleague the lawyer-economist Ian Ayres, both leading behavioralists. Together they founded stickK.com, a site for creating commitment contracts. While you can replicate many of the aspects of a commitment contract yourself, stickK offers you a legally enforceable agreement and the promise that, if you fail, your friends will find out and your card will be charged.


Ian Ayres. 2010. Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. Bantam.

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin