Of Cookies, free Will and George Clooney´s Sweat(er)

The fourth day of MAPP immersion week was again crammed with extraordinary lectures by extraordinary lecturers. The morning belonged to Roy Baumeister, one of the most highly acclaimed social psychologist in the world. He has conducted studies on a multitude of phenomena over the years, but may be known best for his research on willpower and self-control, carrying out experiments something along the line of this: He will put people in a room and have them sit at a table. On the table, there´s a plate full of tasty chocolate cookies; and another one with something to eat that is not attractive at all. People are told to wait for a couple of minutes. In addition, half of them are told not to touch the cookies – while it is totally o.k. to eat the other stuff.

Afterwards, the participants are lead into another room where they get a specific task, e.g. solving unsolvable anagrams. It is then measured how long the they will try to solve the anagrams before giving up. It turns out that people who were not allowed to touch the cookies on average quit a lot earlier. Baumeister calls this phenomenon ego depletion. He argues that willpower is a limited resource that is bound to fatigue similar to a muscle. This may be relevant especially to all those people trying to run multiple “personal change efforts” at a time. It seems more advisable to take if easy, one step at a time.*

Baumeister also gave a lecture on why humans as rational human beings have basically no other choice but to believe in free will; and another very provocative and mind-boggling one the evolutionary difference between men and women – and the consequences of those differences on our current society. I´m not going to elaborate on these topics here.

George Clooney

By Nicolas Genin (CC-BY-SA-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

In the afternoon, Paul Bloom from Yale University took the stage. Among Paul´s manifold interest is the notion of human pleasure and basically, why we like things – and which attributes of an object increase or decrease our perceived utility. E.g., he will ask you what you would pay for a sweater that has been worn by George Clooney.

Turns out that the average American is willing to pay about 130-140$ for a sweater that has been worn by Gorgeous George and still contains his gorgeous sweat (meaning: it hasn´t been washed afterwards). When the thought experiment is extended to the notion that the sweater has been washed, the perceived price level drops considerably. Bloom argues that act of washing alters (in this case: spoils) the sweater´s perceived essence. Here, essence means the sum of the many intangible features of an object: the way it was produced, it´s history before getting to us etc. This also explains how a standard urinal suddenly can become a piece of very expensive art.

Probably doesn’t work with your sweat though – just in case…

* It seems especially unwise to undertake a change effort while dieting at the same time. Baumeister and colleagues also show that willpower may depend on a sufficient level of blood sugar – where low levels lead to ego depletion.

One thought on “Of Cookies, free Will and George Clooney´s Sweat(er)

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