Tierney talks willpower, self-discipline

John Tierney ’75 has written for The New York Times since 1990.
John Tierney ’75 has written for The New York Times since 1990. Photo by Emilie Foyer.

Amy Chua may have a point with regard to her parenting philosophy, according to veteran science columnist John Tierney ’75.

Tierney, who has written for the New York Times since 1990, spoke at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon about willpower and self-discipline, the subject of his forthcoming book. In front of an audience of 40 students and New Haven residents, Tierney shared several scientific findings on the abilities to forego indulgence, avoid temptation and self-regulate — characteristics he said many students lack.

“The average college student,” he said, “admits to procrastinating for at least a third of his waking hours.”

After briefly recounting his journalistic history, which began at Yale as an editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine, Tierney discussed recent experiments on self-discipline. The “radish experiment,” as he called it, was the one that initially piqued his interest in the subject.

Participants in the study, hungry college students, were split into two groups which were each presented with two plates: one containing radishes and one with freshly baked cookies. Each group could eat from only one of the two plates. Then, the two groups were given unsolvable geometric problems. The results found that on average, the cookie-consuming group worked for 20 minutes before giving up, while the radish group only lasted for eight.

“Something about resisting those cookies depleted something,” he reasoned. “We call that ego depletion.”

Tierney used this finding to explain why students who manage to turn assignments in on time seldom change their socks. He likened willpower to a muscle, which can be worn out if strained in a certain way. Under his theory, students who expend all of their willpower rushing to finish a paper will not have enough self-discipline left to do their laundry.

But also like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened by regimented activity, Tierney argued, adding that this can have broad-spanning benefits.

“There have been studies on exercise programs, dieting and improved study habits,” he said. “And as people improved their self-control in one area, other parts of their life would improve.”

Tierney also addressed Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s recent book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which gained national attention for its advocacy of strict parenting. Tierney said that Chua is right that parents often underestimate their children’s potential. He cautioned, though, that imposing three-hour violin lessons may not be the ideal way to raise one’s children.

Students who attended the talk said Tierney’s remarks resonated with them strongly.

“It was exactly tailored to our atmosphere,” Hayley Carpenter ’11 said. “I just stayed up until 5 a.m. last night writing my senior thesis after much procrastination.”

Mark Graham, an assistant clinical psychology professor, praised Tierney for bringing psychology and science at large to the public.

“It’s nice to see a science reporter covering psychology,” he said. “Sometimes our findings linger for a while and never get found out. John consumes the studies and then acts as the translator for a lot of the public.”

Tierney co-wrote a novel with Christopher Buckley in 1998 called “God Is My Broker” that parodies modern self-help books.

Correction: February 11, 2011

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of assistant clinical psychiatry professor Mark Graham.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    A thesis isn’t ready to be written until its writer has digested it subconsciously. What this dude call procrastination, I call creative compression.