John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Science on Will and Willpower - Part II

Although he is not known for work in the addictions, Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University, writes and does research on willpower, one of the most important issues in alcoholism, drug addiction, and other dependencies. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, makes the case that willpower is a limited resource subject to being used up. In simple terms, we get up in the morning with a certain amount of gas in the tank, and by the end of the day we can be running on empty.

An excellent video of one of Roy's lectures is on my media page.

We try to control ourselves in all sorts of ways: eating right, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, spending less. Baumeister says that the practical significance of all this is enormous. He says: "Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self control failure as a central aspect."

Baumeister goes on to say that two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. However, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. On the other hand, self-control can be strengthened, and the study of self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Image of Roy Baumeister

For example, in his research he has found that people perform relatively poorly on tests of self-control when they have engaged in a previous, seemingly unrelated act of self-control: "For instance, in a study in my lab, we invited some students to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and asked others to resist the cookies and munch on radishes instead. Then we gave them impossible geometry puzzles to solve. The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes, on average. But the students who had resisted the tempting cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes."

"Such studies suggest," he continues, "that some willpower was used up by the first task, leaving less for the second. The pattern is opposite to what one would expect based on priming or activating a response mode. So we began to think that some kind of limited resource is at work: It gets depleted as people perform various acts of self-control. Over time, we have begun to link this resource to the folk notion of willpower."

Making decisions seems to use up our willpower. After making decisions, people perform worse at self-control. Conversely, after exerting self-control, decision-making shifts toward simpler and easier processes. That can lead people to make poorer decisions, or to avoid making choices at all. Apparently, decision making depletes the same resource as self-control.

One of Baumeister's examples of willpower depletion: "A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert. Another example might be losing your temper. Normally, you refrain from responding negatively to unpleasant things your romantic partner says. But if one day you’re especially depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet a stressful work deadline — and the person says precisely the wrong thing, you erupt and say the words you would have stifled if your self-control strength was at full capacity. What do you call this process? My collaborators and I use the term “ego depletion” to refer to the state of depleted willpower. Initially, we called it “regulatory depletion” because the first findings focused purely on acts of self-regulation. When it emerged that the same resource was also used for decision-making, we wanted a broader term that would suggest some core aspect of the self was depleted. We borrowed the term “ego” from Freudian theory because Freud had spoken about the self as being partly composed of energy and of processes involving energy."

In his book, Baumeister explains that some people imagine that self-control or willpower is something you only use once in a while, such as when you are tempted to do something wrong. The opposite is true. Research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Self-control is used for other things as well: controlling thoughts and emotions, regulating task performance and making decisions. Most people use their willpower many times a day, all day. And toward the end of the day, there is less gas in the tank.

We now know that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise. So engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control. As people deplete willpower, they became increasingly likely to give in to desires they might otherwise have resisted. This was true for all manner of desires: desires to sleep, to eat, to have sex, to play games, to spend money, to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.

One of the best features of Roy Baumeister's work, particularly his book on willpower, is that he is easy to read, accessible to those of us not trained in clinical research or adept at deciphering scientific papers.

Addictionary: Language of Addiction

The language of addiction is always evolving. Maybe we need an addictionary. See the full story on NPR here.

For example, when the word "alcohol" was written or spoken in early 19th-century America. it was often used in the chemical and medical sense. This is from an article about drawing out the essence of stramonium, or jimson weed: "The virtues of stramonium," the New England Journal of Medicine reported in January of 1818, "appear to be seated in an extractive principle, which dissolves in water and alcohol."

Image of words used in addiction work

The word "cocaine" had different connotations as well. In the 1860s, for instance, a substance termed "cocaine" was advertised by a Boston company as a topical treatment to prevent hair loss.

Over time these words – "alcohol", "cocaine" and others, including "drugs" and" intoxicated" – became more closely associated with substance use, abuse and addiction in American popular culture.

image of word alcoholism prevalence

"'Alcoholism' made its debut in the lexicon around 1900, associated almost exclusively with 'crime' and 'dreams' – coincidentally around the time that Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was published," Recovery.org notes. "However, the association with crime was soon eclipsed by concern over 'chronic' alcoholism and 'death'/'deaths' related to alcoholism, which ballooned in the 1920s during the height of the prohibition movement." Documentarian Ken Burns echoes this in his series, Prohibition. One of the tragic unintended consequences of the nationwide crackdown on alcohol was an increase in dangerous, unregulated spirits — leading to 1,000 deaths a year.

Identifying the Effective Psychiatrist

This essay on my philosophy began as a statement, but gradually the essay morphed into a series of questions. As I began to write, I started to feel as though I should have written this many years ago. I began to experience a deep sense of gratitude toward the many individuals who have taught me with such patience, kindness, and wisdom for so many years. I realized that my philosophy should reflect my desire to be a good psychiatrist. This blog post also appears on my philosophy page.

Practicing medicine is a privilege granted to very few individuals, and I am indeed fortunate. Within the field of medicine, working in psychiatry requires more than an understanding of anatomy and organ systems, because psychiatry is about the mind, the brain, the self, and human experience.
Like any other professional, I believe in high ethical standards, sound knowledge of my field, and the importance of practicing wisely and compassionately. Beyond the obvious nostrums and philosophical cliches, however, I want to be one of the good psychiatrists. As I thought about this lately, I began to wonder: how does one identify and recognize a really good psychiatrist? What makes a good psychiatrist? If I made a list of the most important aspects of a psychiatrist’s professional philosophy, what would that look like?

In 2006 an article was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders showing that good psychiatrists prescribing placebos (sugar pills) had better results than poor psychiatrists prescribing actual medication. Over 120 patients were divided into two groups, one group that received sugar pills and another group that received full strength psychiatric medication for depression. At the same time, each psychiatrist was rated on a number personal qualities: verbal fluency, interpersonal perception, expressiveness, warmth, acceptance, empathy, and the ability to focus on the other person. When results were analyzed, the psychiatrists strong in these personal qualities had the best results, even when the “medication” they prescribed was not medication at all.

The effective psychiatrists were fluent, clear, and expressive in speaking, and they had an accurate feel for their patients. Rather than being distant and aloof, the good psychiatrists were warm, friendly, and accepting. The good psychiatrists empathized well, spent more time with their patients, were more thoughtful in their strategies, and formed strong therapeutic partnerships. The point of the study was that having a good psychiatrist makes a difference in recovery.

Although medication can be extremely helpful in psychiatric care, treatment is not all about medication. The combination of the right medication, the right psychotherapy, and the right psychiatrist is the key to success.

Research has shown for generations that some clinicians consistently produce better results than others, regardless of the type of psychotherapy or theoretical orientation of the practitioner. Hundreds of studies have shown that the differences between types of psychotherapy is very small, but the psychiatrist providing the psychotherapy is critically important.

Over the past fifteen years, extensive research has given us a solid body of evidence about the qualities and actions of effective psychiatrists. Based on the psychotherapy research of Dr. Bruce Wampold of The University of Wisconsin, I have formulated here an inventory that provides the basis for judging whether a psychiatrist is likely to be effective.

  • Effective psychiatrists demonstrate a sophisticated set of interpersonal skills, including verbal fluency, perceptiveness of others, emotional intelligence, expressiveness, warmth, and acceptance. Given these gifts, the most effective psychiatrists are those who are first excellent physicians, well trained in medicine, competent to practice at the highest levels.

  • Effective psychiatrists are inquisitive, questioning, and seeking new knowledge constantly. They embrace science while at the same time possessing the humility to know how little we really know.

  • Patients of effective psychiatrists feel understood, trust the psychiatrist, and believe the psychiatrist can help. The psychiatrist creates these conditions in the first moments in both speech and action. In the initial contacts, patients are very sensitive to cues of acceptance, understanding, and expertise. Although these conditions are necessary throughout therapy, they are most critical in the initial interaction to ensure engagement in the therapeutic process.

  • Effective psychiatrists are able to form a working alliance with a broad range of patients. The working alliance involves the therapeutic bond, but also importantly agreement about the task of goals of therapy. The working alliance is described as collaborative, purposeful work on the part of the patient and the psychiatrist. The effective psychiatrist builds on the patient’s initial trust and belief to form this alliance and the alliance becomes solidly established early in therapy.

  • Effective psychiatrists provide an acceptable and practical explanation for the patient’s distress. The patient wants an explanation for his or her symptoms or problems. There are several considerations involved in providing the explanation. First, the explanation must be consistent with the healing practice. On the medical side, the explanation is biological, and in psychotherapy the explanation is psychological. Second, the explanation must be acceptable and compatible with the patient’s attitudes, values, culture, and worldview. Third, the explanation must provide a strategy by which the patient can overcome difficulties and solve life’s problems. These three factors together make for a strong therapeutic alliance.

  • The effective psychiatrist provides a treatment plan that is consistent with the explanation provided to the patient. Once the patient accepts the explanation, the treatment plan will make sense and patient compliance will be increased. The treatment plan must involve healthy actions—the effective psychiatrist promotes healing by replacing failed strategies with effective strategies. At the same time, strong defenses will replace weak defenses, and healthy practices will replace self-defeating behaviors.

  • The effective psychiatrist is influential, persuasive, and convincing. The psychiatrist presents the explanation and the treatment plan in a way that convinces the patient that the explanation is correct and that following through with the treatment will benefit the patient. This process leads to patient hopefulness, increased expectancy for mastery, and healthy actions. These characteristics are essential for forming a strong working alliance.

  • The effective psychiatrist is honest and authentic. Authenticity refers to communication to the patient that the psychiatrist truly wants to know how the patient is doing. The best psychiatrists tend not to use checklists, scales, and paper measures. Instead, they talk and listen openly and honestly.

  • The effective psychiatrist is flexible and will be patient if resistance to the treatment is apparent or the patient is slow to make progress. Although the effective psychiatrist is persuasive, persuasion can be a process that takes time. The good psychiatrist pays attention, takes in new information, test hypotheses about the patient, and is willing to be wrong. A good psychiatrist will seek second opinions, refer to other specialists, and even take calculated risks such as trying a new approach or a newly released medication.

  • The effective psychiatrist does not avoid difficult material in therapy. Doctor and patient must use such difficulties therapeutically. We all tend to avoid material that is difficult. The effective psychiatrist senses avoidance is taking place and does not collude to avoid the material. Instead, the psychiatrist will discuss the difficult material and address difficult problems. Sometimes conversations can be difficult, and at times the relationship between doctor and patient can be strained, but this is part of the work of therapy. The good psychiatrist can use skill, experience, and compassion to overcome these barriers to recovery.

  • The effective psychiatrist communicates hope and optimism. Sometimes this is easy to do, and sometimes it’s difficult. The working partnership must maintain hope and optimism in the face of chronic illness, relapses, lack of consistent progress, and many other difficulties. Effective psychiatrists acknowledge these issues and still communicate hope that the patient will achieve realistic goals in the long run. This communication is not blind faith or Pollyanna optimism, but rather a firm belief that together the psychiatrist and patient will work successfully. At the same time, effective psychiatrists mobilize patient strengths and resources to facilitate the patient’s ability to solve his or her own problems. The best doctors know that the patient, through his or her work, is responsible for therapeutic progress, creating a sense of mastery.

  • Effective psychiatrists are aware of the patient’s characteristics and context. This is a tall order with many categories: culture, race, ethnicity, spirituality, sexual orientation, age, physical health, motivation for change, and beyond. Furthermore, the effective psychiatrist is aware of how his own background, personality, and beliefs figure into the relationship.

  • The effective psychiatrist is aware of his or her own psychological process and does not inject his or her own material into the therapy process unless such actions are deliberate and therapeutic.

  • The effective psychiatrist is aware of the best research evidence related to the particular patient, in terms of treatment, problems, and social context. It is very important to understand the biological, social, and psychological basis of the patient’s problem.

  • The effective psychiatrist seeks always to improve, always to be a student. Hippocrates said, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn,” and truer words were never spoken.

  • Finally, the good psychiatrist must possess both humility and a sense of humor. We will never know enough, or be wise enough, to have all the answers. We cannot take ourselves too seriously, lest we become arrogant, prideful, and set ourselves apart from those who have graced us with the privilege of being socially sanctioned healers.

Development of skill in psychiatry involves intensive practice and unceasing professional growth. Patients are sometimes our best and most effective teachers. A few years ago I taught a seminar for third year students at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, “Psychiatric Nightmares, Disasters, and Catastrophes.” The entire content of the seminar consisted of mistakes I’d made, errors I had committed, and pitfalls that these students likely would encounter, sooner or later, in their medical careers.

I told the story of a patient with whom I’d had a terrible, angry argument, and how guilty I felt for years about my lack of composure—only to have the patient return, two years later, to ask me for a job at the hospital and tell me that she had been shaken into reality by our confrontation. I told them the story of the patient who overdosed and came to the ICU, and how I was baffled by the case—until I realized that the patient had diabetes, and was actually in a diabetic coma, not a drug-induced state.

I told them about the patient who came to the doorstep of my home on a Sunday afternoon, bearing in her arms her injured pet cat, hoping that I could help. I told them about an elderly man from New Orleans who was my patient in the middle of the night as Hurricane Katrina washed away his home.

And I told them about the time when I was called to the ER to examine a beautiful young woman, a Duke University cheerleader, who had bruised her shoulder. When I approached her to examine the injury, and she undid her gown and dropped it with a smile, I calmly reached into the pocket of my white coat for my stethoscope, only to realize that I then stuck my reflex hammer in my ear.

These encounters are the building blocks of the effective psychiatrist’s life. I’ve come to realize that most of the learning happens after we graduate. As Dr. Stead used to say at Duke, “Medical school is where you stay for four years until you’re old enough to become a doctor.”

Be a Better Spouse or Partner

When I became a family therapist in the 1970's, we had very little research to support some of our common sense assumptions about marriage and relationships. Today we can support our theories with sound scientific findings. From the Scientific American article by Sunny Sea Gold:
#1 Be nice as often as you can.
A lot of modern relationship therapy is based on the research of John Gottman, a prolific psychologist famous for videotaping thousands of couples and dissecting their interactions into quantifiable data. One of his most concrete findings was that happier couples had a ratio of five positive interactions to every negative interaction. “That just leapt off the pages of the data analysis,” he says. It was true in very different types of relationships, including those in which the people were very independent and even distant or argumentative. These positive interactions don't have to be grand gestures: “A smile, a head nod, even just grunting to show you're listening to your partner—those are all positive,” Gottman says.
#2 Think about what your partner needs, even when fighting.
To resolve conflicts, Gottman says we can learn from game theory—the study of conflict and decision making used in political science, sociology and economics. It used to be widely accepted that negotiations were mostly zero-sum situations, meaning one party's gain was the other party's loss. In 1950 mathematician John Nash proved there was another, better outcome: a solution in which the parties may have to compromise, but in the end all of them come out satisfied. (This now famous “Nash equilibrium” won him a Nobel Prize in 1994.) I'm reminded of a recent situation in my own marriage—my husband hated the house we bought a couple of years ago and wanted to move to a different neighborhood; I liked the house just fine and didn't want to goanywhere. After much discussion, we realized that what we both really want is to settle in somewhere for the long haul. If the current house is not a place my husband feels he can settle in, then I can't truly settle in either. So we're moving next month, for both our sakes! Find the Nash equilibrium in your conflict, and you'll both get your needs met.
#3 Just notice them.
“People are always making attempts to get their partners' attention and interest,” Gottman says. In his research, he has found that couples who stay happy (at least during the first seven years) pick up on these cues for attention and give it 86 percent of the time. Pairs who ended up divorced did so 33 percent of the time. “It's the moment we choose to listen to our partner vent about a bad day instead of returning to our television show,” explains Dana R. Baerger, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “In any interaction, we have the opportunity to connect with our partner or to turn away. If we consistently turn away, then over time the foundation of the marriage can slowly erode, even in the absence of overt conflict.”
#4 Ignore the bad, praise the good.
Observations of couples at home reveal that people who focus on the negative miss many of the positive things that their partners are doing. Happy spouses, however, ignore the annoyances and focus on the good. “If your wife is irritable one morning, it's not a big deal. It's not going to become a confrontation,” Gottman says. “Then when she does something nice, you notice and comment on that.” Guess what that breeds? More of the good stuff.

Treatment Philosophy

My work includes general psychiatric problems like anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, family conflict, childhood behavior, stress, and other issues. Many people know me through my work as a specialist in the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions or chemical dependencies.

My approach to psychiatric practice reflects many years studying human nature and working to help people who are having a hard time in life. By the time most people see a psychiatrist, they are worried, or they are sad, or they are very confused about something I will just call “the problem,” or “the complaint.” Let me make some general comments about my approach, and then I will discuss my thinking on the use of medications.

People seek psychiatric help for a variety of problems, but everyone wants the same result: to feel better, to think more clearly, to rediscover satisfaction and happiness, and to regain a sense of self control and personal freedom. The problem may be related to mood, energy level, motivation, sleep, worry, relationships, anger, troubled behavior, obsessions, compulsions -- it’s a long list. People who drink too much, use drugs, or misuse prescription medication are often using these chemicals to find relief. Alcoholism and substance abuse are widespread in our culture.

Dealing with life is never easy.

Most persons first try to solve the problem or deal with the complaint on their own. Frustrated that things aren’t improving, they may seek advice from others. Sometimes a person hides the problem or lives in silence with the complaint. They may read a book, go to a support group, consult the internet, or try a new religious practice. We all have problems and complaints, and we all do the best we can to solve the dilemmas of life. When someone calls me about consultation, I almost always hear them say that they have a problem, they have tried to solve the problem, and they are looking for someone who knows how to help make things better.

One of the individuals consulting with me said, “I feel like I’m in a box, and the directions for getting out of the box are printed -- on the outside of the box.”

A successful airline pilot, a Vietnam combat veteran, said, “Doc, I’m out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas.”

Often the person seeking help has waited so long that demoralization has begun to set in, and they are beginning to lose hope. This doesn’t mean that the individual is suicidal or, in fact, any more unhappy than many of the people at the workplace or in the neighborhood. It means that they are resigned to always feeling this way, never feeling any better than this. Demoralization means a state of mind in which a person considers accepting fate, giving up, and abandoning the idea that things can get better.

Fear, anger, resentment, feeling constantly wounded, feeling overwhelmed, feeling unappreciated, feeling worthless -- all of these emotions are part of our lives. But when we feel negative all the time, or most of the time, most days, then we need help. There are very few emotional problems that defy intelligent therapy and reasonable efforts toward a solution.

When I meet someone for the first time in consultation, I have three major concerns. First, I want to get to know the person and hear about the problem are the complaint. My first question usually is simply, “How can I help?” or “What brings you to see me?” Second, I want to explore the individual’s point of view or understanding of the problem, including what solutions have been attempted. Third, I want to consider what we can do, working together, to improve the situation. I tend to focus more on results than on reasons. I’m not always sure about why things happen, but I am very focused on what we can do now. Sometimes I explain in detail how the brain works, and sometimes I discuss how life works. The process of recovery involves growth, change, and even personal transformation.

Research shows that psychotherapy can help, medication can help, and intelligent problem solving helps. Psychotherapy is not for everyone, and medication is not for everyone, but the vast majority of people who want help can find it. One of my favorite expressions is, “You have to do it yourself, but you can’t do it alone.”

Over the years I have developed a style that I call “sober conversation.” The word “sober” does not apply just to alcohol and addictions. To be sober is to be serious, to focus on what is most important, and to try to get it right. I believe in the importance of what we care about, and in this regard I have seriously studied the specific problem of human will. I call it “the problem of human will” because we are often confused about what we will ourselves to do, or not to do. When I work as a psychotherapist, I am most interested in what people care about, how their beliefs and assumptions about life have been formed, and where they feel stuck or at odds with themselves. Sometimes we have conflicting feelings about the same thing. For example, someone wants to take life in a certain direction, but he or she feels conflicted about it. Or someone tries to solve a problem, not realizing that it’s part of a bigger problem, or a different kind of problem. My definition of psychotherapy is that it is a form of personal consultation, focused on the situation of the client, with the goal of solving problems and feeling better.

Not everyone is cut out for in-depth or long-term conversation. Some people like to come for a few visits, and some like to keep going for weeks, or even months on a weekly basis. Some people prefer to come two or three times a week because they want to do the work and get on with whatever is next. Some people come for an hour, and some come for an afternoon.

Psychotherapy does take time, because the process is basically two people getting to know each other in the context of a specific purpose. Psychotherapy at its best is about taking life seriously, getting it right, and feeling the satisfaction that comes from clarity of thought, commitment to integrity, and comfort with the complexity of one’s own emotions and ideas. Some say that psychotherapy is a dying art, and this may be true. Psychiatrists today (and perhaps psychologists as well) do not receive the extensive training in psychotherapy that we did thirty years ago. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are not interested in psychotherapy. And many psychotherapists are not really very good or very well trained. Today there are thousands of people who call themselves “life coaches,” and anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself a “life coach.” There are several private organizations that offer “certifications,” but there are no license requirements, there is no government regulation, and no educational standard that is generally accepted. For these reasons, I think the concept makes sense, but in practice let the buyer beware -- caveat emptor!

Medications can be very helpful in treating some specific psychiatric problems. Today we have excellent medications for anxiety, depression, moodswings, insomnia, attention deficit disorder, and other conditions. Bipolar disorder, for example, is a devastating condition that can be very effectively managed with medication, restoring individuals to a life of normalcy and stability. I have absolutely no doubt about the value of psychiatric medications. I also believe that what is most important is getting the right diagnosis and the correct strategy for intervention and treatment. I see many people who have been misdiagnosed, and even mistreated, because they have not been well assessed. Assessment can take time, and I never jump to conclusions about diagnosis. After knowing someone for a few weeks, together we may decide that we see the condition in a different way.

Psychiatric medications are powerful, effective tools when used properly, but they also have side-effects, and they are expensive. Getting the right medication for the right diagnosis is extremely important. And there is an old saying from Hippocrates, creator of The Hippocratic Oath: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.“