Ego Depletion: The Social Psychology of Self-Control

What is Ego Depletion?

Ego depletion is a social psychology concept, proposed by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice , that views self-control as a limited resource. Ego, in this case, refers to the executive functions that regulate your desires and impulses, not your sense of self-esteem.

Baumeister's strength model of self-control describes willpower like a muscle - each use of the muscle can cause mental fatigue that affects decision-making for subsequent tasks. Ego depletion can be caused by a variety of things:

- exerting initiative

- prolonged focused attention

- emotional stress

- low blood glucose

- excessive choices

Basically, any time you expend mental energy, you're dipping into a well of limited resources. What happens when the well runs dry? Self-regulation begins to falter which affects our performance on self-control tasks. 

The Effects of Ego Depletion

Dieting is a popular example in ego depletion research. Research has shown that chronic dieters are more prone to ego depletion than non-dieters. Having expended much of their self-control resources monitoring food intake during the day, they become more prone to a self-control failure in the face of temptation.

In one particularly cruel social psychology experiment, study participants had to either sit next to a bowl of snacks or far away from said bowl. Later, when given the chance to eat ice cream, dieters that sat close to the bowl and resisted snacking, ate more ice cream than non-dieters later on. Which begs the question: how does one sign up for these ego-depletion studies? Asking for a friend...

Shopping is another common example where ego-depletion effects can be observed. Baumeister's ego-depletion research has delved into consumer behaviors to see what factor free will and ego depletion play. Studies have shown that shoppers are more likely to make poor or impulsive purchase decisions when they experience ego depletion. While there may be individual differences in our decision-making reserves, there are a few insights we can glean from the resource model when we view self-control this way.

How to Prevent Ego Depletion

Resource Model

Decision-making of any kind will tap into your reserves, so dispense it carefully! Like any depleting resource, the focus should be on preservation. The limited resource should be carefully guarded and never wasted. 

To avoid resource depletion, try tackling your most important tasks first when your willpower is at its strongest. Avoid the temptation to roll out of bed and check your emails first thing in the morning. Self-control tasks that require less mental energy can be saved for later in the day. 

Got candy?

If you have leftover Halloween candy, you might do well to ration it. There's some real neuroscience to this! Studies suggest a link between blood glucose and self-control. Indulging in a sugary treat every now and then can help maintain your self-regulation.

Baumeister's initial ego-depletion studies tested a subject's ability to complete tasks after having to exercise self-control. Effect size was measured in depleting task duration. The tests showed that people who had to choose radishes over chocolate as a pregame snack, were subsequently less likely to persist on completing a puzzle than their chocolate-eating counterparts. Take a page from Roy Baumeister himself and treat yourself to a sweet treat!

Disclaimer: we cannot be held liable for children and dependents petitioning to substitute chocolate for radishes at dinner.

Laughter, the best medicine

In their research, positive mood was shown to mitigate ego depletion effects. Things like laughter and small rewards can have a positive affect on self-regulation. Try taking a break from your work to laugh at a funny video or reward yourself with something like candy (see above). 

Rest & Recharge

Luckily, under the resource model, self-control is not a finite resource - it can be replenished. One way to do so is through the one thing we're all chasing, sleep. A good night's sleep will reset your self-control and recharge your mental energy. On the other hand, lack of sleep can cause self-control failures.

Stress management is another way to strengthen your self-control. Learning to manage stress can help prevent ego depletion effects. Try deep meditation, or breathing exercises to manage stress that arises from decision-making or self-control tasks throughout the day.

Plan Ahead

Much of the stress we encounter day-to-day comes from our lack of self-regulation and the urgency we create for ourselves. If you're deciding what to eat for dinner when you're hungry, your self-control resources are already low and you may opt for something faster, more expensive, or unhealthier. 

The same can be said for shopping, especially during the holidays. Someone that's put off their gift shopping, might settle for a lesser gift or pay more in shipping to make sure their gifts make it in time. We can avoid resource depletion in both of these scenarios by planning ahead.

Fact or Fiction?

There are a lot of differing perspectives on psychological science. While there's been plenty of support for the strength model of self-control, some meta-analysis has questioned the effect size and existence of the ego-depletion effect. Studies by other orgs and researchers have either found no ego depletion effect or even gone as far as claiming publication bias. Whether the neuroscience backs it up or not remains a hotly-debated topic in social psychology circles. The concept dates of ego depletion is more than 30 years old, yet meta-analytic tests arguing both for and against have continued on as recently as 2018. We've linked to some of the studies referenced below so you can decided for yourself. 

Even still, that slight shift in perspective - treating our self-control and self-regulation as a limited resource - can meaningfully inform our decision-making. In a time where everything is vying for our attention all at once, it's important to guard ourselves from the constant deluge and preserve what little peace we can find. We're all about prioritizing tasks, so you can focus on what matters. In a way, ego depletion is why TeuxDeux exists. 

Read the studies here:

Baumeister, R. F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.; Tice, D. M. (1998). "Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology74 (5): 1252–1265. CiteSeerX 9599441.

 Inzlicht, M.; Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). "What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control". Perspectives on Psychological Science7 (5): 450–463. doi:10.1177/1745691612454134PMID 26168503S2CID 3899310.

Baumeister, Roy F. (2002). "Ego Depletion and Self-Control Failure: An Energy Model of the Self's Executive Function". Self and Identity1 (2): 129–136. doi:10.1080/152988602317319302S2CID 12823588

Hagger, M.S.; Chatzisarantis, N.L. (2013). "The Sweet Taste of Success The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin39 (1): 28–42. doi:10.1177/0146167212459912hdl:10072/171920PMID 22995892S2CID 1691752.

Hagger, M. S.; Chatzisarantis, N. L. D.; Alberts, H.; et al. (2016). "A Multilab Preregistered Replication of the Ego-Depletion Effect"Perspectives on Psychological Science11 (4): 546–573. doi:10.1177/1745691616652873hdl:20.500.11937/16871PMID 27474142

Hagger, MS; Wood, C; Stiff, C; Chatzisarantis, NL (July 2010). "Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis"Psychological Bulletin136 (4): 495–525. 20565167.

Carter, Evan C.; McCullough, Michael E. (2014). "Publication bias and the limited strength model of self-control: has the evidence for ego depletion been overestimated?"Frontiers in Psychology5: 823. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00823PMC 4115664PMID 25126083.

Baumeister, R. F.; Sparks, E. A.; Stillman, T. F.; Vohs, K. D. (2008). "Free will in consumer behavior: Self-control, ego depletion, and choice". Journal of Consumer Psychology18: 4–13. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2007.10.002.

"Curated independent direct replications of ego depletion effect" Retrieved 2016-11-26.

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