The Social Animal: why willpower never works

This year, I resolved to read one sustainability-related book per month. April’s book is The Social Animal by David Brooks, published in 2011. 

OK, so this isn’t technically a book on sustainability. As the blurb tells me, it’s an exploration of “non-cognitive skills – those hidden qualities that can’t be easily counted or measured, but which in real life lead to happiness and fulfilment”.

But The Social Animal is a great introduction to the way humans work, and as such I found it to be one of the most sustainability-relevant books I’ve read in a while.

It’s written as a novel rather than a non-fiction volume, following the lives of Harold and Erica from infancy to old age. The conceit works only some of the time – but when it does work, it’s an inspired tactic that delivers buckets of information to the reader in double-quick time.

It brings new life, for example, to the classic ‘marshmallow study’ of the 1970s, carried out by Walter Mischel at Stanford. Mischel gave a marshmallow to a series of four-year-olds, telling them that he was about to leave the room. They had a choice: eat the marshmallow while he was gone, or wait until he returned and receive two marshmallows. Famously, those children who were able to resist the marshmallow in his absence were found to be higher achievers later in life.

But Brooks takes his analysis further, searching for the underlying reason that some were able to control their impulses and others weren’t. Crucially, those who resisted the marshmallow employed strategies of distraction and imagination. They looked away, or pretended the marshmallow wasn’t real. What they didn’t do was to look at the marshmallow in all its squidgy glory, and dig deep for the willpower to resist.

Mischel used this finding in a later study, asking children to imagine there was a frame around the marshmallow, and that it was only a picture. The children employing this strategy were able to wait three times longer before giving in and eating it. Again, they didn’t control their longing for the marshmallow – instead, they triggered ways of seeing it that meant their longing was displaced.

Brooks returns to this theme more than once. When one of his characters becomes an alcoholic, he realises he can’t change his drinking patterns through willpower alone, but decides to put himself in a context that can trigger change: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The lesson for sustainability? If we’re going to put in place successful new norms for sustainable behaviours, we need to take into account the unconscious reasons for our current behaviour.

And we’ll have to come up with solutions that work with our natural ability to change, rather than imploring us to rely on willpower. Against our unconscious mind, it doesn’t have a chance.

Image: Mini-Marshmallow Cupcakes by Anne is licensed under CC BY 2.0