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August 8, 2006

The End of Willpower


"Willpower really doesn't have any meaning," said Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying weight loss for five decades.

More: "Telling an overweight person to use willpower is... like telling a clinically depressed person to 'snap out of it.'"

So wrote Jane Fritsch in her October 5, 1999 New York Times story.

The article follows, then we'll chat.

    Scientists Unmask Diet Myth: Willpower

    A thin person, the kind who has always been thin, is confronted by a chocolate cake with dark fudge icing and chopped pecans. Unmoved, he goes about his business as if nothing has happened.

    A fat person, the kind who has always struggled with weight, is confronted by the same cake. He feels a little surge of adrenaline. He cuts a slice and eats it. Then he eats another, and feels guilty for the rest of the day.

    The simplest, and most judgmental, explanation for the difference in behavior is willpower. Some seem to have it but others do not, and the common wisdom is that they ought to get some.

    But to weight-loss researchers, willpower is an outdated and largely discredited concept, about as relevant to dieting as cod liver oil. And many question whether willpower even exists.

    ''There is no magical stuff inside of you called willpower that should somehow override nature,'' said Dr. James C. Rosen, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. ''It's a metaphor that most chronically overweight dieters buy into.''

    To attribute dieting success or failure to willpower, researchers say, is to ignore the complex interaction of brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity and the powerful influence of habits. Telling an overweight person to use willpower is, in many ways, like telling a clinically depressed person to ''snap out of it.''

    It is possible, of course, to recover from depression and to lose weight, but neither is likely to happen simply because a person wills it, researchers say. There must be an intervention, either chemical or psychological.

    The study of weight loss began in earnest in the early 1950's, when doctors and nutritionists treated overweight people by telling them to eat less.

    ''Willpower was a kind of all-embracing theory that was used all the time to make doctors feel good and make patients feel bad,'' said Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying weight loss for five decades.

    ''Most people think that willpower is just a pejorative way of describing your failures,'' he said. ''Willpower really doesn't have any meaning.''

    Willpower's role in weight loss was a major issue among scientists about 30 years ago, when the behavior modification movement began, Dr. Stunkard said. Until then, the existence, and importance, of willpower had been an article of faith on which most diets were founded, he said.

    The behavior modification approach had its roots in a 1967 study called ''Behavioral Control of Overeating,'' which tried to analyze the elements of ''self-control'' and apply them to weight loss. The study, by Richard B. Stuart of the University of Michigan, showed that eight overweight women treated with behavior modification techniques lost from 26 to 47 pounds over a year. They had frequent sessions with a therapist and recorded their food intake and moods in diaries. And the therapists helped them develop lists of alternatives to eating, like reading a newspaper or calling a friend.

    ''No effort is made to distinguish the historical antecedents of the problem and no assumptions are made about the personality of the overeater,'' Mr. Stuart wrote in his article, published in the journal Behavioral Research and Therapy.

    After that, the focus of weight loss programs shifted toward behavioral steps a dieter takes regarding eating, said Dr. Michael R. Lowe, a professor of clinical psychology at the MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, and away from ''something you search for within.''

    Behavior modification is now the most widely accepted approach to long-term weight loss. Practically, that means changing eating habits -- and making new habits -- by performing new behaviors. Most programs now recommend things like pausing before eating to write down what is about to be eaten, keeping a journal describing a mood just before eating and eating before a trip to the grocery store.

    There is also mounting evidence that behavior affects the brain's chemical balance, and vice versa. Drugs like fenfluramine, half of the now-banned fen-phen combination, reduced a dieter's interest in eating, making willpower either irrelevant or seemingly available in pill form. And Dr. Stunkard has just completed a study that showed that people with ''night-eating syndrome'' -- who overeat in the late evening, have trouble sleeping and get up in the middle of the night to eat -- have below-normal blood levels of the hormones melatonin, leptin and cortisol.

    Still, to deny the importance of willpower is to attack a fundamental notion about human character.

    ''The concept of willpower is something that is very widely embedded in our view of ourselves,'' said Dr. Lowe of MCP Hahnemann. ''It is a major explanatory mechanism that people use to account for behavior.''

    But Dr. Lowe said he and others viewed willpower as ''essentially an explanatory fiction.'' Saying that someone lacks willpower ''leaves people with the sense they understand why the behavior occurred, when in reality all they've done is label the behavior, not explain it,'' he said.

    ''Willpower as an independent cause of behavior is a myth,'' Dr. Lowe said. In his clinical practice, he takes a behavioral approach to weight control. In part, that involves counseling dieters to take a more positive attitude about their ability to lose weight. It also involves some practical steps. ''Most importantly,'' he said, ''you need to learn what behavioral steps you can take before you get in the situation where you're in the chair in front of the television with a bowl of potato chips.''

    It is important, he said, for dieters to keep in mind the formidable forces working against them and their so-called willpower. ''We live in about the most toxic environment for weight control that you can imagine,'' Dr. Lowe said. ''There is ready, easy availability of high-fat, high-calorie fast foods that are relatively affordable, combined with the fact that our society has become about as sedentary as a society can be.''

    But not all experts reject the notion of willpower. Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said this was the most difficult time in history for dieters, and that it would be a mistake to dismiss the willpower concept. ''A person's ability to control their eating varies over time, and you cannot attribute that to biology,'' he said.

    ''There's a collective public loss of willpower because of this terrible food environment that challenges us beyond what we can tolerate,'' Dr. Brownell said. ''One needs much more willpower now than ever before just to stay even.''

    All the temptations notwithstanding, thousands find a way to lose weight and keep it off, a fact demonstrated by the National Weight Control Registry, a research project that keeps tabs on people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for more than a year.

    ''A lot of times in weight loss programs patients will say to me that they need to learn to be able to live with an apple pie in the refrigerator and not eat it,'' said Dr. Rena Wing, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and Brown medical school, who is collaborating on the registry. Most behaviorists say dieters should instead arrange their lives so that they rarely have to confront such temptations.

    ''If I were to put an apple pie in front of everybody every minute of the day, I could probably break down everybody's quote-unquote willpower,'' she said. ''We really are trying to get away from this notion of willpower. If you make certain plans, you will be able to engineer your behavior in such a way that you will look as if you have willpower.''



Looking at the headline for this post, for a second there I thought Francis Fukuyama had taken over operational control of my frontal lobes — what's left of them.

But I digress.

What occasioned this post was Tim Harford's "Dear Economist" feature in last weekend's Financial Times.

Have a look, then we'll chat some more.

    Dear Economist,

    It was my birthday recently and I made some resolutions: to slim for the beach, read more serious novels, save money and quit smoking. I am doing OK on the cigarettes so far but I am already back to watching Big Brother and I have put on 3lb. Did I take on too much at once?

    Rebecca Furniss, Parson’s Green, London


    Dear Rebecca,

    An interesting new paper by three University of Michigan economists argues that willpower is a scarce resource like any other. You cannot exceed your allocation of willpower any more than you can buy a round of drinks with an empty purse.

    It’s a plausible view: economic psychologists have found that people make more impulsive decisions if they have already had to resist earlier temptations than if they come fresh to the chocolate bar. Many of us have caved in and given ourselves a “reward” after a day of hard work.

    It seems likely that your success in kicking the smoking habit has drained you of the psychic resources to read anything other than Dan Brown. Worse, were you to redouble your efforts to plough through something by James Joyce, your cigarette habit might return, leaving you at risk of becoming the most cultured corpse in the morgue.

    The solution is clear enough. First, outsource tough decisions whenever you can. Set up an automatic savings plan and cut up your credit card, so you will not have to resist the temptation to spend too much money. Buy food online so that you do not have to walk past the Ben and Jerry’s and use up your valuable powers of self-denial.

    And if you ever feel like reaching for the cigarettes again, top up your willpower by reaching instead for the freezer and the remote control.


Short column shorter: Harford's conclusion is that willpower is a zero-sum game, to mix a metaphor.

You only have so much of it.

It's like money.

It doesn't grow on trees, nor does it replenish itself.

Use it and lose it.

Not weight — willpower.

So spend wisely.

What Harford didn't tell Rebecca, either because he didn't want to pile on or because he simply didn't know, is that quitting smoking results in a subsequent average weight gain of over 20 pounds.

If Rebecca's baggies are already in a twist over a mere three pounds, weight till she sees what 18 more look like.

August 8, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

WorldCat — 'Window to the world's libraries'


Tell us more.

"WorldCat is a worldwide union catalog created and maintained collectively by more than 9,000 member institutions. With millions of online records built from the bibliographic and ownership information of contributing libraries, it is the largest and most comprehensive database of its kind."

Margalit Fox wrote in her August 2 New York Times obituary of Frederick G. Kilgour, who created WorldCat, "Based in Dublin, Ohio, the cooperative oversees a vast computerized database that comprises the catalogs of some 10,000 libraries around the world — more than a billion items — available to anyone who walks into a participating library and logs on to a computer terminal. Starting later this month, the database will be available to anyone with an Internet connection."

Can't hardly wait.

August 8, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Treetent — Episode 3: The response of the inventor (redux)


Since Episode 1 back on October 19 of last year Shawn Lea, cynosure of my crack research team, has fielded innumerable requests from readers wishing to buy one.

To free her up for other activities demanding all of her attention (for example, out back in the bookofjoe skunk works activity has reached a fever pitch as we prepare to debut bookofjoeTV) I published, in Episode 2 on April 5 of this year, the gracious response of Dré Wapanaar (inventor of the Treetent) to Shawn's inquiry to him.

Word has just reached me through sources I am not at liberty to disclose that readers in the Netherlands are not finding Episode 2 but, rather, Episode 1 when they attempt to purchase a Treetent online.

Again, then, "How to buy a Treetent."

As always, not one word has been omitted.

    dear Shawn,

    yes, many people want to purchase a treetent, and of course they can, with me.

    unfortunately the tents were never taken into mass production (or better said: never designed for the idea of mass production).

    they have to be looked at from a sculptural perspective, there is a limited production, handmade, expensive, not meant for private purchase.


    dré wapenaar

    studio dré wapenaar
    vaandrigstraat 10
    3034 px rotterdam
    the netherlands

    email: info@drewapenaar.nl

August 8, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

David Sifry's 'State of the Blogosphere 2006' — Attention should be paid


David Sifry is the grand panjandrum of technorati.

As such, what he has to say is always of interest and value.

But he has outdone himself with yesterday's "State of the Blogosphere" entry in his blog, Sifry's Alerts.

Read it with wonderment: I sure did.

The graphics alone (three of which appear above and below) are worth the price of admission.


Wait a minute....

And did I mention that he even returned my emails back when I was just emerging from the primordial internet ooze?

That's no small beer.

FunFact: To impress people and seem smarter than you really are, when someone asks, "Where's that from?" instantly reply, "The Bible or Shakespeare."

You'll be right 50% of the time.

As always, we're dedicated to making you seem even better than you already are.


Which is saying quite a lot, in my opinion.

August 8, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Zap Xebra — 'The only 100%-electric car available in the USA capable of 40 mph'


Also comes in Ocean Blue, Kiwi Green and Lipstick Red — in case you don't want to stick out.

For sale not "real soon now" but today.

Gets 40 miles on a charge.

Seats four.



August 8, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Parmigiano-Reggiano Butter — Episode 2: Sighting at Whole Foods


Alene, one of my legion of superb bleeding-edge researchers, just reported that she purchased this elusive (I use this word because back on March 31, 2005, when Episode 1 appeared here, it was only available in Italy and New York City) butter at her local Whole Foods.

Her bulletin, just in, follows; note that, as always, not one word has been omitted.

At bookofjoe you get what you pay for.

But I digress.

    Alene's comment:

    This butter has made an appearance at Whole Foods. This should make the butter available in a large part of the USA. It is delicious and distinctive, but I bought it because it has an unusually high level of vitamin A (listed as 13% compared to the usual 6-7% of most other commercial butters).


You can bet your bottom yuan that on my next excursion up 29 North to Whole Foods, I'll be looking for this buttah.

August 8, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fanta Fantanas — Best current TV commercial*


I'm certainly in as good a position as anyone in the world to judge: I mean, I'm staring over my PowerBook at the boob tube right in front of my treadmill, tuned to MTV for the past few weeks (VHI and the boring people on all their reality shows finally did me in — I just couldn't take another look at Hulk Hogan rolling his eyes or Adrianne Curry, lovely as she is, crying because bozo partner Christopher Knight dissed her yet again), about 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Fantanas always bring a smile to my face.

I referred to them as the dancing Fantas until I went to the Fanta website earlier today and learned their proper name.

I stand corrected.

I learned a lot of other important stuff there, like the fact that each of the Fantanas (above, from left: Sophia, Amie, Mimi and Kala) wears an outfit corresponding to the color of one of the four Fanta flavors (grape, orange, pineapple and strawberry)

I'm even — ever so slowly, mind you, but hey, gimme a break already — learning their steps and routine so I can try out for the next one.

I haven't a clue what the commercial's music might be like, of course, since the sound is always off on the TV to allow for the ripping nonstop volume 10/10 Who/Prince/Cranberries soundtrack of bookofjoe.

Runner-up: Dairy Queen's "Ripping the Wig Off" spot flogging its new Mint Mocha MooLatte,


where two newscasters are just about to go on the air when the male co-anchor starts madly sucking on his partner's drink: she's too smart — and mean — to simply get angry.

Much better: she gets even — and then some — by ripping off the guy's hair-plug toupee


just as he begins reading the news.

The best part is her smirk as she tosses the toupee off the set.


That'll show him!

Want to see it?

No problema.


August 8, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Grit Gitter Grit Grabber


Say it real fast three times without messing up and you win a prize.*

From the website:

    Grit Gitter™

    Relief for spa and pool owners!

    This ingenious underwater vacuum sucks up grit with ease.

    Perfect for hot tubs, or attach the long-reach extender handle to vacuum the swimming pool while you stay dry.

    Clever hydraulic design provides incredible suction — just squeeze the handle and the grit’s gone!

    9" long, 8"-diam. head.

    Extender: 21" long.


Odd, isn't it, how grit never seemed to be an issue here before last week, when it reared its irritating self in the car washing space?

Now it's back, lurking on the bottom of your pool.

Next thing you know it'll be inside the house.

That's scary.

The Grit Grabber is $29.99 and the Extender $12.49, both here.


August 8, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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