By Udeet Datta & Sam Marquez
The Theory: Ego Depletion
Ego Depletion refers to the idea that our willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted over a period of time. Popularized by Roy Baumeister, this depletion happens when we utilize any available willpower on one task resulting in the inability to implement the same level of self-control, or good decision-making, on other upcoming, unrelated tasks. In an experiment1, participants were presented with either cookies or radishes and asked to resist eating the cookies and eat the radishes instead. Once this challenge was completed, these participants demonstrated a reduced persistence in completing a challenging puzzle than control groups.
The Verdict: False
What does the research say?
- Recent large-scale2,3 studies into the subject of ego depletion have found no strong evidence of this effect. Although other studies and experiments have been conducted, recent analysis4 suggests that publication bias may have affected the accuracy of reported effects negatively. When researchers controlled for this bias, the supposed ego depletion effects disappeared.
- On top of this, claims that glucose consumption as a short-term willpower boost have also been debunked.5 Unlike a muscle, the brain does not seem to consume significantly6 more energy during strenuous activity.
- However, it is evident that one’s belief about whether we are “draining mental energy” can impact how fatigued we feel. This may represent an interesting turn in willpower research. Although willpower may not seem to be a resource that is limited, early studies7 indicate that our beliefs about whether or not it is limited can impact how we exert our willpower. However, more studies do need to be done explore this possibility.
1. Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.5 (1998): 1252-265