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Archive for June 2012

“Willpower depletion” & you

June 13, 2012 – Most of us seem prone to distraction, which suggests a problem with summoning “willpower”. This appears to be “social” – part of “fitting in”. To make things worse, it seems that advertisers and the media conspire to have us associating distraction with… pleasure.

We can’t think about this stuff without metaphor. We could talk about “real” things: serotonin, dopamine, etc – but we’d have to use metaphor eventually. So, distraction appears outside us, but then becomes “internalised” and “self-reinforcing”. After a busy, distracting day, we try to relax by distracting ourselves further (eg by watching TV news). Eventually our own minds become distracting.

It might seem like a problem. But then we start thinking in terms of mental “discipline”, “vigilance”, “self-denial”, etc – “solutions”. Or we might invoke management jargon, with its emphasis on “control”, “efficiency”, “planning”. Vigilance! Regimen! Abstention! It sounds like an anal-retentive’s lexicon. Surely there’s another way..?

Luckily, the blossoming fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are not ignoring “willpower”. On the contrary, they’re producing truckloads of fascinating research – including new(ish) ways to think about it…

“Self-control” & “ego depletion”

The term “ego depletion” seems to have taken off, having appeared in thousands of scientific papers. Its popularity in the field seems due to its usefulness in “explaining” a wide assortment of behaviours reflecting poor “self-control”.

The basic idea is a sort of energy model (or metaphor) of “self”. The “energy” gets depleted and needs to be replenished, and this determines our available “willpower”. The researcher who coined the phrase “ego depletion” says he used the term “ego” as a kind of homage to Freud’s insights regarding the old “libido” energy-model of self.

One of the early studies on ego depletion (the ‘Radish & Chocolate’ experiment) raised the question: Why would the act of resisting chocolate-chip cookies lead to poor perseverance in trying to solve a geometry puzzle? (The experiment had compared the geometry-solving perseverance of a group of tempted radish-eating students to that of both cookie-eating and hungry – but untempted – students).

One of the authors of the study, Roy Baumeister (with co-author John Tierney), commented:

The old folk wisdom about willpower appeared to be correct after all, unlike the newer and fancier psychological theories of the self. Willpower looked like much more than a metaphor. It seemed to be like a muscle that could be fatigued through use. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

Of course, in thinking about it as a “power”, or as “like a muscle”, we’re still in the realm of conceptual metaphor. Baumeister later uses the metaphor of a willpower “stock”, “supply” “reservoir” and “source of energy”:

1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over. There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day. You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

If you don’t yet see the significance here of metaphor, consider that while the “fatigued muscle” and “drained reservoir” metaphors might both be useful ways to think about these aspects of “self”, muscles behave very differently from reservoirs. We can’t think about “self-control” without metaphor, and it’s fine to use multiple, diverse metaphors (we do it all the time without noticing), but each conceptual metaphor has its own set of inferences. You can’t strengthen a reservoir through exercise, although you can fill it back to its original level.

No unpleasantness

‘Ego depletion’ has been described by researchers as like an illness with no symptoms – a condition which doesn’t “feel” like anything. But it seems there are tell-tale signs, the most obvious being a tendency to react (emotionally) more strongly to all sorts of things, plus intensified desires and appetites. As Baumeister & Tierney put it, “Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever”.

You may have noticed, for example, that you get irritable when you’re trying to quit some habitual/addictive behaviour. Or you find yourself craving junk food. Or perhaps you just get disheartened and depressed more easily than usual. In the ego-depletion thesis, these behaviours/states result from placing demands on your ‘stock’ of willpower – the same stock which is used for controlling thoughts, emotions and other “impulses”. The increased irritation (or craving or other reaction) is often the very thing which causes you to abandon your attempt (to quit smoking, or whatever is demanding more ‘willpower’ than usual).

People usually associate willpower with so-called “impulse control” (the ability to resist temptations such as alcohol, tobacco and chocolate) or “performance control” (focusing your attention, persevering with a task, etc), but not with control of thoughts and emotions.

We tend to use “computational” metaphors for “rational thought” – we conceive of thinking as being about information processing rather than “energy resources”. And yet controlled thinking (eg trying to solve a difficult geometry puzzle) drains your ‘willpower’ reservoir, according to the scientific research on ego-depletion. How is this relevant to anything? Well, while we might make allowances for poor “performance” when we feel completely “drained” (ie exhausted), we probably don’t imagine that fluctuations in our “energy levels” affect how we “rationally” think.

“Decision fatigue”

Consider the study (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’) which found that judges were more likely to be lenient in granting parole if they’d just had a snack break. The judges themselves weren’t aware that pausing for a sandwich affected their “rational” decision-making processes.

The slightly “drained” pre-snack judges tended to go for the less risky option (keeping the prisoners locked up) – compared to their decisions made after refreshments. As the study’s authors (Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso) write:

We have presented evidence suggesting that when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment. (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’)

Or, in the words of Baumeister & Tierney, “Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions”.

Of course, decisions on more important matters, such as going to war, are taken on a much more “rational” basis – they don’t depend on snacks. Of course. (See Oliver Stone’s film, W., for more details…).

Boost Your Willpower!

This is about you. Want to give up smoking, increase your concentration? Wouldn’t the ladies be more impressed if you had a larger attention span? Are you wasting your days on Twitter? And what about managing your anger and irritation more effectively? Do you think people haven’t noticed how argu-mental you seem at times?

It’s all about this “ego depletion” thing. And did you know that, according to this theory, activities such as meditation can strengthen your willpower? I’ll try to explain, but right now there’s a car alarm going off outside, and I can’t concentrate. Those noisy bastards, no consideration for others… who’d want to steal their piece-of-shit car anyway… [etc]

(To be continued…)


Written by NewsFrames

June 12, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Metaphor, Willpower

Another media “race row”

June 7, 2012 – What is it about football+racism that makes UK media coverage of it seem like something from the Dark Ages?

Do words contain demons? Do the terms “negrito” and “negro” contain metaphysical essences of badness? Are these words “offensive” regardless of context and the language in which they’re spoken? From reading the UK press lately, you might think so…

It’s not just the tabloids. The “liberal” Guardian and Independent have run some of the more hysterical (and error-riddled) material – eg see my previous article on ‘churnalism’ for details. (The Guardian published over a hundred pieces on the Suarez “affair” without once mentioning key, hysteria-defusing facts about the case).

This morning’s newspapers “report” a new “race row”. It’s also, apparently, a “race storm”. The Daily Star makes front page “news” of the story, but then few people take The Star seriously – unless the intention is to masturbate. The Independent, you hope, is different. Let’s parse the Indie’s “reporting” of the story, to see if we can figure out what’s going on:-

Dani Pacheco’s use of the word “negrito” in a Twitter message to team-mate Glen Johnson forced the young Spaniard to defend himself on the social networking site [...]

He tweeted: “@glen-johnson good luck negrito!!!!” (Independent, 6/6/2012)

Okay. So, why am I reading this in a ‘quality’ newspaper? “Negrito” can be used as a term of affection – with no racially offensive connotations – by Spanish-speakers (see examples cited by FA’s linguistic experts, below). Pacheco apparently felt he had to respond (or “defend himself”) to a few culturally-ignorant Twitter users. It’s just the usual social-media bullshit, no? The Independent piece continued:-

Liverpool team-mate Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for using the same word towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in a match at Anfield in October.  (Independent, 6/6/2012)

Wrong. It might help if the Independent got its facts right. One of the few things that the FA panel, Suarez and Evra apparently agreed on was that Suarez had used the term “negro”, not “negrito”. I thought newspaper reporters were supposed to actually read the official documentation they report on.

The Uruguay international [Suarez] unsuccessfully argued “negrito” was not a derogatory term in the Spanish language, despite its racial connotations in English. (Independent, 6/6/2012)

Hopelessly wrong. Suarez successfully “argued” (or, rather, simply stated) that the term “negro” was commonly used in Spanish (particularly in Latin-American usage) in a non-derogatory, non-offensive, non-racial way. The language experts employed by the FA (his prosecutors) agreed with him on this. Here’s what they said:-

“The term ['negro', Spanish] can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin”. (Paragraph 172 of  FA panel’s report)

“…the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190 of FA panel’s report)

Argentine players display bannerOn the term “negrito”, the FA panel wrote:-

A Mexican footballer, Omar Esparza, is widely known in Mexico as “el Negrito”. Hernandez, the Manchester United player, has been a close friend of Omar Esparza for many years and refers to him as “el Negrito” in an affectionate way. Hernandez admitted that terms such as “Negrito” can be used with close friends and in certain situations without it being offensive. (Para 353 of FA panel’s report)

All of this is just a click away for newspaper reporters. They also have automated word-searches to make it easier to find the relevant paragraphs (containing “negrito” and “negro”). It’s not difficult to get it right. And isn’t racism supposed to be a serious business? Perhaps worth a bit of elementary fact-checking? Anyway, back to the Independent’s piece:-

When Pacheco received a couple of critical comments in response to his message he wrote: “I Allready (sic) explained in past what Negrito could mean. Good or bad depends how you say it. I always called @glen-johnson it in terms of love.

“Last tweet about it. @glen-johnson speaks Spanish and he knows what that mean when I say it to him. He is one of best mates there for me.”  (Independent, 6/6/2012)

So, Pacheco “received a couple of critical comments” from people ignorant of Spanish. This seems to be the full extent of the “race storm” – once you subtract the media hysteria.

I notice that the Telegraph and Daily Mail also covered the story – using the same wording (and errors) as the Independent (that’s probably because they all seem to have sourced the story from this Press Association release).   Update: The Mirror ran the story using its own (slightly moronic) “Liver-fool” headline.

Even the Huffington Post covered it, referring to the “negrito” tweet as “another racial PR gaffe” for Liverpool. Hmm… but it wasn’t “racial”, it wasn’t “PR”, and it wasn’t a “gaffe”. Meanwhile, to digress slightly, the BBC’s Panorama documentary has been accused of sensationalism over its football-racism claims.

Written by NewsFrames

June 7, 2012 at 12:56 pm

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