Beeminder Forum

"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Intro and Ch. 1


I’m also reading along, and finally adding meditation to the things I beemind.


Are you planning a real-time meeting to discuss the chapters over VC? Or something like that?


I was thinking we would just discuss asynchronously here, but if enough people are interested in a real time thing, I’m not opposed to that either!


I started writing a longer post about this week’s reading, but unfortunately I ran out of time after a jam-packed weekend. I’ll get that up soon, but until then, what are folks thinking of the pace? I think it’s nice and comfortable!


I think pace will be great (once my book finally arrives today)! Lost Amazon order?! I didn’t think such a thing could happen:roll_eyes:. I’m looking forward to reading/discussing with you guys!


The pace has been working great for me. One week cycles are plenty of time to read the chapter and then try out the exercises.

My highlights from chapter two:

  • Physiological conditions (diet/exercise/sleep) are going to have a substantial impact on how much self-control you have.
  • The body can go into either fight-or-flight mode or pause-and-plan mode in response to threats and conflict. In a secure, abundant environment, the former is rarely adaptive… and is almost certainly going to lead you astray when facing an internal conflict.
  • You can build the capacity to operate in pause-and-plan mode. Consistent exercise, meditation, sleep, and healthy diet all support more self-control and thoughtful decision making.
    • …however, these are all medium-to-long term interventions. For a immediate boost, don’t underestimate the power of taking deep breathes (5 seconds in/5 seconds out) and going for a five minute walk!
  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a physiological measure that correlates with better self-control.

I participated in a self-care workshop at my workplace last year, which was based partly on HeartMath’s HRV-based breathing practice. As a company, HeartMath endorses bonkers pseudoscience, but I think the basic intervention they recommend is good (and agrees with what Kelly McGonigal was saying in this chapter):

  1. Set aside time to deliberately practice slow, paced breathing to improve skill at getting into a calm, high-HRV state.
  2. Use the paced breathing when in a stressful situations to calm down fight-or-flight responses.

I have one of their biofeedback gadgets (the Inner Balance sensor), but I don’t think it’s really necessary. I can attest that paced breathing practice really does help – it got me through some of the worst of my son’s rebellious toddlerhood.

Reading about the physiological factors of willpower got me thinking about the correspondence bias (the tendency to blame circumstances for one’s own behavior and innate tendencies for the behavior of others). It feels like to me that the correspondence bias plays out a little differently when it comes to self-control. I’ve absorbed this cultural idea that willpower is a measure of character and that when I make bad decisions it’s because I’m a Bad Person. I know that’s an unhealthy perspective, but it’s a mental rut I can’t seem to totally purge. I wonder if I can train myself to remember the physiological circumstances when evaluating my impulse control, and in doing so vaccinate against useless self-blaming.

"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Ch. 2

I love that you bring up HRV!

Both my wife and I recently got a wearable with an HRV component. It basically doesn’t work for my wife, almost showing a midrange number, pretty unrelated to what she notices or feels.

Mine, on the other hand? I can sit and watch my number and make it go up or down, and it’s pretty spot on in terms of “man, I’m freaking out now!” is a 90+, and “Wow, I’m super relaxed” is 10 or lower.

Not sure why it doesn’t work for my wife–it might be something on the collecting data side, like fit or something optically with her skin, or maybe her autonomic system variance isn’t the same as the algorithm-tweakers assumed, or perhaps she’s a sophisticated robot :robot:


I have yet to go beyond the first page (reading other stuff though), this is me publicly shaming myself :slight_smile:


I am actually the same way, I need to get caught up this week.


Bonkers psuedoscience is a good description.

As I understand the bogus HRV “theory,” the idea is that if you subtract the number of heartbeats for the in-breath from the number of heartbeats from the out-breath, or maybe it’s the heart rate, you get some supposedly meaningful number.

HRV proponents also suggest an exercise where you breathe in for 8 heartbeats, then out for 8 heartbeats, and that’s supposed to “correct” your HRV.

Anyway, thank you for warning me not to waste my time with “The Willpower Instinct” - I try to avoid pseudoscience and it’s not a good sign if the book uses it.

I’m hoping the next book doesn’t discuss MBTI types or something…


The part of the HeartMath company that I’d call “bonkers” is their insistence that people sync each other’s moods via magnetic fields generated by the heart. That’s just crazy!

I don’t know what you’re describing here, but it isn’t any measure of HRV I’ve ever seen:

The measures of HRV I’ve encountered are all some variation of:

  1. sampling the waveform of the heart beat for some interval
  2. measuring the intervals from one heart beat to the next
  3. calculating some measure of statistical dispersion in those intervals (e.g. the standard deviation)

There is also a well-established phenomena where the heart rate varies with respiration, called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). My wife is a researcher in development psychology and she uses physiological measures (including RSA) in her work. Measuring RSA is a bit more sophisticated than the other HRV measures I described above, because it requires both the waveform from the heart beats and a measure of respiration, but it is well-established in the literature that HRV correlates with the fight-or-flight response.

Whether or not the breathing exercises can increase your baseline HRV, who knows. I’m agnostic about that. But If I take deep, paced breaths for five minutes, I feel substantially calmer. I don’t think it’s that far out there to think that one could practice calming yourself down and improve.

Finally, whatever pseudoscience is coming out of HeartMath is irrelevant to the credibility of The Willpower Instinct. Kelly McGonigal isn’t endorsing them or reference their work (other than casually mentioning one of their biofeedback devices in a footnote). Yes, she talks about HRV, but that isn’t pseudoscience. Everything she has said (so far! I’ve read through chapter two) is mainstream in the psychology literature.


Oh yeah, you’re right, I was thinking of RSA (not the encryption).

It’s not that HRV or RSA is psuedoscience, it’s that I have seen many psuedoscientific claims regarding both.

Really? This I didn’t know.

Sure, but I don’t know that this has anything to do with HRV.

Ok, good to know! I stand corrected. I’ll dig it out of the dumpster then :wink:


You’ve prompted me to have some interesting conversations with my wife about this stuff tonight, so thank you!

I took another look at the HRV section, and this bit at the top of page 39 caught my eye:

Studies also show that people with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations. They are also less likely to give up on difficult tasks, even when they initially fail or receive critical feedback. These findings have led psychologists to call heart rate variability the body’s “reserve” of willpower – a physiological measure of self control. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.

I think that McGonigal is being a little hand-wavey and sloppy about causal language, as though HRV itself is the cause of better self-control. One could easily interpret McGonigal as promoting this causal diagram:

If that’s what she really means… well, I don’t see how that would work. But I interpreted her argument to instead be this causal diagram:

My wife also thought the second diagram was what McGonigal meant, and was willing to give McGonigal a pass on her phrasing, given that the overall argument of the chapter hangs together and that she’s targeting a lay audience. HRV and how it’s used to measure stress response are complicated and hard to describe without being a little hand-wavey. My wife also agreed that the overall argument of the chapter was plausible, and that in the worst case scenario McGonigal’s proposed interventions were free and good ideas in general.

To recap, my beliefs coming out of this chapter are:

  • The state of the body plays a role in self-control.
  • Getting enough sleep, exercise, and practicing emotional self-regulation improve the capacity for self-control.
  • High HRV indicates the kind of physiological state where people tend to have improved self-control.


I haven’t read the chapter but in that quote it seems like she’s pretty clearly stating that HRV itself leads to better willpower and self-control, i.e., your first diagram. I agree that’s ridiculous.

I’m not sure I understand your second diagram. It makes sense without the upper right bubble. But with the upper right bubble - well, why does it matter if one has increased HRV when confronted with internal conflict? Is the idea that’s it’s just a measurement of self-control, in which case the diagram should look like:

Paced breathing exercises -> Ability to self-regulate into a calm state -> Success at self-control -> shows up as increased HRV


Glad you had a good discussion. This is literally the point of this book club! :smiley:

One of my many hats involves product design and embedded systems design of both pacers/defib implantables and fitness wearables, including ones that are fitness oriented, so HRV is something I work with quite a bit!

I actually don’t know much about comparing HRV between individuals.
It may be like heartrate, where it is pretty lousy at comparing two people, but it may not–I just don’t know the literature. Unless I mark it explicitly, when I say low HRV and high HRV I mean compared to your previous measurements.

HRV a pretty good biomarker showing parasympathetic nervous system activity versus sympathetic. This is correlated to a lot of things, and for a lot of people, it’s a pretty good measurement of recovery after training. If you measure your sleeping HRV, you can use the change in your HRV after a strenuous workout to indicate when your body is ready for another strenuous workout (I’m not a medical professional and I’m definitely not your medical professional.)

Low HRV is tied to a variety of illnesses and some mental states and while it can be grossly oversimplified as “if your body is running low, your HRV tends to go low, and if it has a lot of reserves, it tends to go high”.

Everything old is new again, and people have found that it can be easier to self-regulate into a calm state by watching their live HRV. It seems to work better, for me, than early biofeedback stuff from the 70s (think heartrate, galvanic skin response…)


I just finished chapter 1. (As I understand it we’re not “supposed” to be on chapter 2 until next week?) The interesting thing for me was the stuff about meditation: I had heard lots of talk about meditation enhancing “mindfulness” and things like that which always sounded like it was a fancy word for nothing. I had never heard it presented as practice for your prefrontal cortex, which actually sounds compelling to me. So I’ve decided to try it. I plan to do 5 minutes each morning this week to start (maybe I’ll make a beeminder goal if I decide I want to continue).


You are correct–we should be wrapping up Chapter 1 this weekend, and starting Chapter 2 next week.

I know there will be people zooming ahead, and certainly people will run into this thread into the future, so unless it looks like it’s impairing discussion, I’m pretty open to anything.

I’m curious to see what you think of meditation after a week!


I just finished Chapter 1. This prompted me to

  1. start a nebuminding goal (I’d link to the forum post on this if I weren’t commenting on my phone) for taking notes and working through the exercises.

  2. to actually restart my meditation goal. For several years now it seems that every time someone mentions meditation I’ve thought to myself “Oh yeah. Meditation seemed to help me with a lot of things back when I was doing it regularly. I should do it again.” So this time I had that thought I restarted the goal.


Unfortunately, it looks like my beeminder forum summaries are inconveniently timed – I just got the notification that this thread exists today. I’ll see if I can get ahold of the book (I hate ebooks for useful information, but that might be the only way to get it quickly) and catch up this week!


Dear Queen Bee, what is nebuminding?