This post is about the Slate article that Marotta links to above (an article that is worth reading).
From the Slate article:
"We all have a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse. Eating a radish when you’re surrounded by fresh-baked cookies represents an epic feat of self-denial, and one that really wears you out. Willpower, argued Baumeister and Tice, draws down mental energy—it’s a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion."
Notice that will-power isn't defined, but that Baumeister's studies imply that they are cutting-edge research that are in effect discovering the nature of will-power. And by not having a definition, they can do the extraordinary conflation of a mental trait with a metabolic process. This is pompous, intellectual fuzziness dressed to pretend it is science. I have found that Baumeister is fairly consistent in failing to supply a defintion of the basic subject matter he purports to study.
"Other labs discovered that a subject’s beliefs and mindset could also affect whether and how her willpower was depleted."
And this was a surprise!
"It could be that willpower is a finite resource, but one that we expend according to our motivations. After all, that’s how money works: A person’s buying habits might encompass lots of different factors, including how much cash she’s holding and how she feels about her finances. But given these larger questions about the nature of willpower as well as the meta-analysis debate, the whole body of research began to seem suspicious." [Emphasis mine]
Every one of Baumeister's studies that I've seen has this same flaw: the larger questions about the nature of the subject being examined.
"In 2011, Baumeister and John Tierney of the New York Times published a science-cum-self-help book based around this research. Their best-seller, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, advised readers on how the science of ego depletion could be put to use. A glass of lemonade that’s been sweetened with real sugar, they said, could help replenish someone’s inner store of self-control. And if willpower works like a muscle, then regular exercise could boost its strength. You could literally build character, Baumeister said in an interview with the Templeton Foundation, a religiously inclined science-funding organization that has given him about $1 million in grants."
This man was saying that taking in sugar would build character. Notice that there is no definition of character, but that whatever it is, it has been reduced to a metabolic after-effect.
"Even meta-analyses, which once were thought to yield a gold standard for evaluating bodies of research now seem somewhat worthless. “Meta-analyses are fucked,” Inzlicht warned me. If you analyze 200 lousy studies, you’ll get a lousy answer in the end. It’s garbage in, garbage out."
Gee, another surprise!
Roy Baumeister is one of my least favorite psychologists. He did a number of "studies" of self-esteem and in each one, "proved" that high self-esteem was bad for a person and for society. He did different "studies" where he "showed" that violent criminals, school bullies, and students with poor grades all had "high self-esteem." Neither he, nor the peers who reviewed his 'studies' questioned his failure to provide an adequate definition of self-esteem, nor did they question the assumption that his asking his subjects a set of 5 questions (a likert scale) where they self-rated their worth was a valid measure of the self-esteem that he hadn't defined.
Baumeister comes from the field of social psychology and draws a bit on evolutionary psychology, but only where it shows human evolution in service of society. He claims, as a basic psychological theory, that there is a need to belong that is built into human nature and that it is our primary psychological need. He claims that specific relationships are interchangeable, but that without an adequate number of them, we suffer psychological and behavioral issues. And with an adequate measure of relationships we will be healthy.
In my mind, Baumeister epitomizes the worst kind of scientist/theorist. He puts together a theory that, I believe, supports an emotional state that he experiences and that he shows an appalling lack of self-awareness that this is what he is doing. Then he abuses logic and the language to make his theory sound rational and consistent with accepted theories. Then he manages to get well paid for doing research that is horribly shoddy in its failure to deal with the most basic of assumptions, and that purports to prove his theory. To me, there is no worse form of dishonesty than that of a psychologist who allows himself to live in a state of denial so that he can fake reality in his own field, creating shoddy theories and research to support what are most likely just his own personal psychological issues.
Maybe I'm just annoyed because psychology, as a field, is so intellectually deficient that it elevated this man to the top while referring to Branden as a pop-psychologist. There is a cargo-cult kind of mentality in those who go through these rituals that are dressed up to look like real research (they have subjects, they have a hypothesis, they have a paper that they submit for publication, it is constructed using the APA format, etc.).... as if this would make the underlying theory be right.