Roy Baumeister on Willpower, Habits, and the Human Mind


Rohan: I read Roy Baumeister’s brilliant book “Willpower” just last month and reached out to him right after. Coincidentally, he was on his way to Australia on a business trip and we managed to find 20 minutes to speak while he was on transit in Sydney airport.

It was a really interesting chat with one of the titans of research into human behavior, specifically willpower.

I apologize in advance for the audio quality. We were in a noisy airport food court and we’ve done our best to ease the noise.

About Roy

Roy F. Baumeister (born May 16, 1953) is Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a social psychologist who is known for his work on the self, social rejection, belongingness, sexuality, self-control, self-esteem, self-defeating behaviors, motivation, aggression, consciousness, and free will. He has authored 500 publications and has written, co-written, or edited almost 30 books. He earned his A.B. summa cum laude from Princeton University and his M.A. from Duke University. He returned to Princeton University with his mentor Edward E. Jones and earned his Ph.D. from the university’s Department of Psychology in 1978. He then taught at Case Western Reserve University for over two decades before transferring to Florida State.He is a fellow of both the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Association for Psychological Science. Baumeister was named an ISI highly cited researcher in 2003.

Interview transcript


Rohan: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? Why did you begin with research? What was your inspiration? What were some of your big defining/learning moments during this time?

Roy: I don’t know how to answer that question. I had good professors when I was a student and I’ve always thought that the lecturer’s life would be good. I wanted to become a professor from an early stage in my life. Over the years, I’ve changed which field I would specialize in. Psychology is a good mixture of philosophy and science, so I was able to tackle philosophical questions that were used for scientific methods.



Rohan: I read up about the number of topics that you have done your research on. They range across perception of self, self-esteem, and willpower. Was there a story or a reason it went that way or was it one thing leading to another?

Roy: It’s more one thing leading to another. I have studied a lot of things. I was a student in the late 70s and it was a time where there were big changes in the society. People were interested in exploring and understanding what the human mind could do. So I think I got caught up in that area. There was a time when the psychology department suddenly got a lot more people within a few years. I was a student in Princeton which usually had around 20-50 majors in psychology and suddenly this number rose to 80-100. I think that reflected the society’s interest in understanding people and the individual mind. And that infected me as well when I was a student.



Rohan: What interested me in Psychology was the idea that you hold today, “Forget self-esteem and focus on self-control”. Could you talk us through this idea?

Roy: I studied self-esteem in the early periods and was excited about it as many other people were and we hoped it would really be a key to success in life. If people raise self-esteem, we thought that they’d be happier, healthier and more successful. However, over time that became a big disappointment. There were correlations and I think it was an honest mistake.

We thought that students with high self-esteem would do better in their schools but when we tracked people over time, we realized that self esteem is the result and not a cause of doing well.  We thought we could raise people’s self-esteem leading to them doing better in school but results from tracking them showed that the people with high self-esteem did not do better in school. There were a lot of disappointments like that and gradually we became disenchanted with that idea.

Self-control is much more powerful in terms of producing practical effects. It is also about understanding the mind and self. Self control is very central; it self-regulates everything else. Self-esteem is one part of this picture but its not the centre.



Rohan: One of the best uses of willpower is using it to form habits. I’d love to understand your view there.

Roy: We think of using willpower for resisting temptation and for powerful acts of virtue. However, people who are successful in the long run seem to use their self-control to set up a smoothly running life – for creating good habits and good routines. We did a study last year, where we tracked people all day - the desires they felt, whether they resisted them or not. We thought people with high self control would resist more desires. It turns out that’s not the case. They just avoided situations where their resolve would be tested. We also found out that people with high self control did well in school. It’s because they developed good study habits and didn’t just stay up the night before the exam. They spent time working regularly, staying on schedule, and getting things done. That’s how I think of willpower and habit. It’s a bit of a change in perspective.



Rohan: I didn’t expect that. I thought I’d hear that willpower was a muscle – the more you flex it the more it is trained; that way you don’t get distracted and waste time during the day keeping it up. I just understand that it is a change of view from ‘build as much willpower as you can to use’ to ‘use it to channel it into building habits’

Roy: Well those two can go together. I think that’s what successful people do.



Rohan: Thanks to these interviews, I have met a number of people. And it is amazing how the ones who do well have figured out the basic things like exercise. In your book, you mention British Bookmakers William Hill has an interesting running bet against with a diet plan. I think that’s a practical problem everybody faces. What have been some of the most successful applications of willpower, towards exercise as an example?

Roy: I am not sure how to answer that. I am a basic scientist who figures out how things work. The applications are things other people do. I know one of my PhD students tried to train people to build their willpower and they were much more successful at quitting smoking. That’s a remarkable achievement. Very little research gets anywhere with quitting smoking. It’s a graveyard of many psychological theorists.

He took them through exercise to build their willpower, that made them feel good. In a study he and I did, we made people work on their posture – sitting and standing up straight. We then gave them laboratory tests that has nothing to do with posture but they did better overall.



Rohan: One of the things I found useful was that, to build your reserve, which is one of the more practical problems, you need to eat well and sleep well.

Roy: Eating well and resting well will help you. And in the long run, exercising it will strengthen the muscle and keep you good at it.



Rohan: How has studying all of this changed your life? You’re pretty much on the forefront of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Roy: I am not one of those people who studies things because they are part of my life. I am one of those people who studies things from other peoples lives. It has affected one thing though. Your willpower is affected by your health. It affects energy supply and that’s also what your immune system uses to fight diseases. I used to be sick often. I would go to the physician and he would say that I should take some rest. I would not really be physically exerting myself anyway, so I did not understand that advice initially.

That was a wrong outlook, I’ve realized. Intellectual work is work too. And it uses up energy just as much. Now when I get sick, I just take a break and try to sleep it for a day or two. Even though you want to work at the moment, it’s a more efficient approach in the long run.



Rohan: Little things exhaust the willpower muscle, right? – like the chocolate chip cookie experiment. I have realized that you need to be very picky about the environment you are in. And also tailor your day in a way, so you spend your willpower on what’s most critical. Don’t keep chocolate chip cookies in the house if you feel that’s going to help you. It feels like it’s engineering the way you live life and not just the little things you do.

Roy: Yes, resisting temptations is using up your energy as well. Our president read some of our work and said, ‘That’s it, and I am just going to wear grey and blue suits all the time.’ So he doesn’t waste any energy thinking about what he eats or what he wears. That makes sense because it all comes from the same energy that self-control uses.



Rohan: I have heard you discuss this. Repeated falls of politicians and celebrities from glory, associated with irrational decisions can be explained through this concept..

Roy: Certainly someone at his level would have to make a lot of decisions. As you said, the easy decisions never get to him. He is still just a human being with a finite amount of energy. This is relatively new  in our field. When I had started work, nobody had thought of of the energy . Everything was about information processing. The prevailing model was that the brain is like a computer. Now I guess the concept of mind as energy is being valued and the importance of managing it is being understood.



Rohan: As an outsider, these concepts are available for the masses even more. With you, Dan Ariely on irrationality, and Charles Duhigg on habits, information seems to be more available. Is this a golden age of sorts? Or are we just coming to know about it because people are writing books about it.

Roy: Golden age is a bit strong, but I think it’s a very good time for psychology. There are some challenges. We are trying to improve our scientific methods through developing statistical upgrades, but yes. It’s a good time.



Rohan: I know you are extremely productive as a researcher and as a person. I would love to understand the process. What are some routines, processes that help you be productive?

Roy: I think you have to figure out what’s important  and give priority to doing that. When you are a professor, you are constantly asked to do this and that – evaluate a person,  give a lecture, and all that. What you need to understand is that what matters in the long run is how much of your research gets published. You have to give priority to that.

When the Willpower book came out, I thought I’d publish the book and nothing else would come after it. Normally, I just write a book and forget about it. But there was so much of media interest and I did many interviews as a result. It helped the book but it came out of my time that I would have spent writing other papers and working on another book I was planning to write. It was hard to make the time to do those things. Normally, I would keep a sense of what’s really important and what’s not. I still have to go and teach classes, attend faculty meetings, etc. So, the time for external things comes out of the time that goes into research and papers which means  research gets slowed down. It’s a struggle to be productive at those times.



Rohan: Is there a message or an idea that you would like to share? 

Roy: I think this is a profound question and not something I can answer easily off the top of my head after a 14-hour flight. :-) Always look for efficiency if you want to get a lot done. Some people put in long hours and eventually that gets to you. Get the most amount of work out of the time you have. There is no way to increase the time in a day, you have to work on getting every task done, smartly. You can’t sacrifice the quality as well. Well, sometimes you can, but most often you can’t. So, you’ve to make it as good as you possibly can with the time you have by using it as well as possible.

Thank you, Roy, for taking the time, and for answering all those questions after that 14 hour flight!

Real Leaders Team