People tend to become set in their ways and resistant to change as they mature, at least according to the widespread stereotype.
Two new books, however, suggest that people can make significant changes at any age. All they have to do is practice the "story editing" prescribed by one book, and bolster their willpower in ways suggested by the other.
Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has found that story editing can help people change deeply ingrained tendencies that may be undermining their best efforts.
An example he includes in his book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, involves college freshmen who were struggling academically. Such an experience can launch students into a "pessimism cycle" in which they tell themselves, "I'm not smart; I'm not cut out for college; I'll never graduate." Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The "optimism cycle," in contrast, prods students to greater effort because they tell themselves a different story. Instead of viewing themselves as dullards not smart enough for college, they conclude that college is more challenging than they expected and they need to study harder.
Wilson conducted an experiment that involved freshmen who were not doing well. He had them sit through a 30-minute session during which they were shown survey results and videotaped interviews in which older students indicated their grades improved steadily after their freshman year. The session promoted the idea that many students do poorly at first, but improve by studying harder. Success in college, in other words, is more a matter of effort than aptitude – an optimistic viewpoint. The students subjected to this session went on to get higher grades and graduate at a much higher rate than other students.
Wilson has also found that story editing can take place when people write about their own experiences in an effort to increase their understanding of themselves and to make positive changes in their outlook and behavior.
"Writing prods the mind to find meaning in experiences," Wilson said. "This involves some combination of conscious and unconscious thought."
The process of story editing appears to benefit people of any age. Wilson's 86-year-old father recently stumbled upon the technique on his own.
"He was asked by his niece to write a description of the dogs his family had," Wilson said. "This has blossomed into a memoir of his childhood with the dogs as the vehicle, and he's thoroughly enjoying it. He's not just recounting his experiences, but finding new meaning in them."
Willpower is another time-honored ability that produces change, but it depends far more on physical energy than most people realize, said Roy F. Baumeister, who directs the social psychology program at Florida State University.
In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which he co-authored with New York Times reporter John Tierney, Baumeister lays out evidence demonstrating how the mental energy required for self-control becomes easily exhausted, leaving us more susceptible to impulse, self-indulgence, laziness, and other enemies of willpower. Since willpower depends on physical energy, and energy declines with age, young people may seem at an advantage. But older people have other resources that can help, according to the authors.
"In terms of self-control, older people tend to do better than young people," Baumeister said. "Maturity and learning go into that, but older people have fewer problematic impulses. Even if they have less energy to control them, the task of controlling impulses is easier for them. It may be true that old dogs do not learn new tricks, but humans do."
Willpower, according to the authors, depends heavily on glucose levels in the blood, which supply the energy needed to exercise impulse control. However, the body's ability to use glucose declines with age as cells become less responsive to insulin, which ushers glucose into cells. The pancreas pumps more insulin, making older people more susceptible to a pair of opposing problems — hyperglycemia, or too much glucose in the blood, and hypoglycemia, or too little.
High blood sugar results in diabetes, which produces widespread damage to the body's tissues, but low blood sugar can cause muddled thinking and erratic emotions, both of which interfere with self-control and willpower.
In their book, Baumeister and Tierney describe a young father at the beach who suddenly could not make simple decisions, such as which baskets to deposit his son's toys in or whether to go to the snack bar or restroom first.
"My son was tugging at me, but I couldn't decide," the father told the authors. "We were there close to a half an hour before I finally managed to get up and go eat."
Careful monitoring of blood sugar levels through diet, exercise, and if necessary, medication, is important not just for physical health as people age, but for proper brain functioning as well, according to Baumeister. Low blood sugar, even when produced by mental or physical effort, produces a decline in willpower and "just makes everything feel more intense," Baumeister said. "Things bother you more, or might make you more discouraged or frustrated."
Change remains possible for older people if they make themselves more aware of the stories they tell themselves, as Wilson suggests, but the process of heightening one's awareness requires willpower.
"The key point is, you have one stock of willpower, and you can build that," Baumeister said. "Like a muscle, you can train and strengthen it. You can train it with small tasks — small positive changes in your life that strengthen your capacity to make other changes."
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.