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840 Tapping the Science of Willpower for the New Year (Archive)

Tune in to our radio show on your local public radio station, or sign up for the podcast and listen at your leisure. Here’s what it’s about:

At the start of a new year, many of us resolve to adopt a healthier lifestyle. We plan to quit smoking if we haven’t already; or we intend to get into a regular exercise routine, give up junk food and lose weight. Why are New Year’s resolutions so easy to make–and so hard to keep?

If we only had more willpower, we think, perhaps we wouldn’t give in to temptation so easily. Can we exercise willpower like a muscle to make it stronger? Find out how self-control works and how to make it work for you. And have a happy and healthy new year!

Guest: Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is an award-winning psychology instructor at Stanford University and a health educator for the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program. Her psychology courses for professionals and the public (including The Science of Willpower and Living Well with Stress) are among the most popular in the history of Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. She is the author of Psychology Today’s “Science of Willpower” blog. Dr. McGonigal’s latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Photo by Mark Bennington

Her website is: www.kellymcgonigal.com

Twitter: http://twitter.com/kellymcgonigal

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kellymcgonigalauthor

To find the book: Try Amazon
or Barnes and Noble

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free for four weeks after the date of broadcast. After that time has passed, digital downloads are available for $2.99. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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comments (14 total)
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I agree that as an educator that we need to motivate children with positive reinforcers. Children learn the same as adults and their self esteem in many cases is formed as a child for good or ill. This is carried on in to adulthood and can have a very lasting effect on their lives.

This was such a great show on several levels.
One quibble is with a side comment. I think Dr. McGonigal’s example of fries and a cheeseburger as a bad choice is only half correct at most food joints. Cows’ stomachs almost entirely preclude the use of frankenfats (recycled fryer vat oil put in animal feed) which contaminate most other meat sources including the chicken, turkey, bacon and fish offered on salads (also the breads). The fries are bad unless the oil used is good. We have one restaurant in town which uses pig lard from pastured pigs, not exposed to commercial feed, for frying – their fries are fine. Cheeseburgers in most joints are the safest thing on the menu.
Your show made me hungry for one of the few times in my life – I fried in Bonelli olive oil, 2 farm (orange yolks from bugs, seeds and scratch) eggs from my cousin, served over a sausage hash from Christmas, from pastured sow, organic onions, cream, peppers and frozen Ore-Ida potatoes. Morton’s Lite Salt and pepper completed the meal. Very good. I am somewhat skeptical of the potatoes and peppers as sources of harmful pesticide molecules but I am healthier for the rest despite stereotypes which make people think otherwise.
Now if we could get the dairy companies to take the frankenfats (mono and diglycerides) out of their “reduced fat” products so they could be safe again.

I think children should not be made feel shame. Shame does not teach or empower. They can be taught, shown, another way (sometimes parent’s think the right way is their way) sometimes they are so wrong. Where does the shame as an adult come from if not that early training. The idea of not fearing shame but looking for solution is much more powerful.

This is a great episode, and I am sharing it widely.
One of the most important motivators is healthy pride and sense of accomplishment. Shame and guilt are the flip-side of those things. You cannot have one without the other. I feel that with children, pride and accomplishment should be encouraged. However, if someone is not doing a good job and needs to improve, those negative feelings are essential in recognizing failure… so one can avoid it in the future. This does not mean viciously making one ashamed…. it means showing disappointment.
We have an entire generation of people who played T-ball and were praised for everything, who are now having trouble trying to work in the real world, where you are expected to behave without constant praise. They are depressed and stressed because they do not get raises and promotions every week.
Too much shame/blame/negative energy/disappointment is bad, but a complete lack of it is dangerous. Children must learn to recognize these feelings and learn how to cope with them while they have a loving support structure in childhood.

It is OK to disagree with opinion, but Dr. McGonigal was reporting the results of research and experiment. As a scientist she should only report results. Also, Dr. McGonnigal never spoke of manipulating a child. It is worth reviewing all this in the podcast – it was a good show.
But I am also sympathetic, just because something works, does not make it ethical or moral or kind. Much of what works for us is rooted in the function of our “old mind.” The part that evolved when we were primates the size of a Big Mac. It is good to know about those functions (knowing, is the new brain at work). There is nothing wrong with making these things work for us if it is appropriate.
Guilt and shame are not universal. For example in Buddhist psychology shame is felt to be a positive mental factor. But they define it differently that we do in the west as the mental factor that causes one to blush with embarrassment, for self or others in a social situation. It has the effect of motivating us not to repeat the activity – a positive outcome.
The western guilt and shame is a long term activity where we do not respond to the motivation, where we do not learn and respond with changed behavior, and reproduce negative mental states and unfortunate social activities without resolution.
I would be interested to learn the exact definition Dr. McGonnigal was applying to the words shame and guilt. Shame is more complicated than it appears on the surface.
The carry away idea that Dr. McGonnigal mentioned was that it is a myth “that guilt and shame will get us back on track” when we have a setback. Research does not bear out guilt and shame as effective in generating positive change, and she was not implying that they are a useful method for adults. Children are in learning mode and must be instructed (and proper behavior modeled) what is safe, or what is socially a successful behavior. She did say that they were more effective with children, but I never heard her say they were the best solution.
She finished up by proposing self compassion and forgiveness as the proper way forward to avoid future setbacks, as opposed to shame an guilt. Compassion is the heartfelt wish that no suffering be experienced. The Buddhist definition of forgiveness is a heartfelt commitment not allow past actions to generate any future negative mental or physical activity. Heartfelt is important, and it all hinges on mindful intention. I will take that as a good idea. Self compassion and forgiveness are very good to teach to and model for children as well.

This guest was the most informative and helpful person who has ever appeared on your show.

Peoples Pharmacy is a great show and I thank you, Joe and Terry, for producing it.
Show #840 on will power is very good and its usefulness cross cuts much of life. I’ll look for the book in order to get more of the details.
Happy new Year,

A terrific topic discussed by a knowledgeable and eloquent expert. I will use some of Dr. McGonigal’s insights and observations in discussing the topic of change, leadership and self-leadership in my leadership course at Texas Christian University.
Thanks for this program and for your on-going contributions to living a healthy life.

I am licensed professional counselor and was very impressed with Dr. McGonigal. I found myself wishing I could go to Stanford for my Ph.D. Mindfulness is a tremendously important concept in my field and always try to incorporate it with the clients I work with. I especially like her metaphor of intrusive thoughts as waves in the ocean. I often use a similar metaphor of intrusive thoughts as trains in a station. They come and they go, but it is up to us if we delay them, or board them to talk to the passengers. Thanks for having her on, I can’t wait to read her book to hopefully expand my personal and professional knowledge.

I only caught the tail end of the interview this morning, and was a little disturbed to hear Dr. McGonigal’s opinion that as adults, research has shown that guilt and shame have a negative effect on motivation, but that in children, guilt and shame are acceptable motivation for proper behavior. It seemed counter-intuitive and I can’t help but to disagree completely.
I feel that especially in children, behavior should not be manipulated using guilt or shame as tools. How we discipline our children builds them into the adults of the future, or, for some of us now, the adults that we are. Adults who need behavior modification or the services of psychologists to bring us to a place of realizing our intrinsic value. I agree that children need guidance, boundaries and healthy examples to follow, but guilt and shame should never enter into discipline strategies if we want to raise self-motivated, body/mind conscious children.
I would be interested to see the results if the same study she mentioned being done on adults was also done on children. I can only imagine the results would be the same: that guilt & shame perpetuate negative behavior in children, just as in adults.

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