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Volume 13, Issue 47;   November 20, 2013: Ego Depletion: An Introduction

Ego Depletion: An Introduction

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Ego depletion is a recently discovered phenomenon that limits our ability to regulate our own behavior. It explains such seemingly unrelated phenomena as marketing campaign effectiveness, toxic conflict contagion, and difficulty losing weight.
Red raspberries

Red raspberries. Just viewing this image can — for some — deplete somewhat the self-regulation resource. If this were a photo of chocolate chip cookies, the depletion effect might be even more significant.

You probably know that it's easier to lose weight if the cookie jar is empty. Seems obvious: you can't snack on cookies you don't have. But there's more truth here than cookie shortages can explain. If the cookies aren't there to tempt you, you needn't spend energy resisting temptation. Ego depletion is the idea that energy spent on self-regulation isn't available again until you rest and recover.

The term was coined by Roy Baumeister just about 15 years ago [Baumeister 1998]. The phenomenon has since been repeatedly demonstrated experimentally.

In one experiment, test subjects are presented with two foods — radishes and chocolate chip cookies. Individuals in one group were instructed to eat three radishes and no cookies, and individuals in the other are instructed to eat three cookies and no radishes. All individuals are left alone in a cookie-aroma-filled room with both foods, long enough to tempt them to sample the food they were told to avoid. Later, each subject was given an unsolveable problem, and told to spend as long on solving it as they wished. Those instructed to eat the radishes and resist the cookies spent less time on the unsolveable problem, tried fewer different approaches to solving it, and gave up more quickly than those instructed to sample the cookies.

This experiment and many more like it produce results that suggest that resisting temptation depletes a finite resource, analogous to vigorously exercising a muscle. Your "self-regulation system" tires after a period of use. Unless it's given time to rest and recover, its capability is restricted.

Experiments are almost always so artificial-sounding that we must ask, "What does this have to do with reality?" The answer is, in short, "A whole lot."

Ego depletion Resisting temptation depletes
a finite resource, analogous
to vigorously exercising a muscle
explains the effectiveness of many business tactics that predate its discovery by decades, in industries as unrelated as retailing, cable television, and higher education.

Here's an example. Suppose you have several teammates whose interactions with others usually involve unprovoked attacks, condescension, and insults. You don't feel that it's your place to attempt to alter their behavior. When they attack you, which happens at nearly every meeting, you restrain your anger. You refuse to engage with them in their nastiness.

Ego depletion would predict that in such scenarios, the people who are attacked are less able to regulate their own behavior after the incident. They might indulge in sweets after or during the meeting. They might be rude or abusive to others at an unrelated following meeting that day. They might procrastinate performing tiresome or difficult tasks. They might be snippy with loved ones at home that evening.

These are just some of the predictions of the ego depletion hypothesis. In coming issues, we'll explore these ideas in a variety of workplace circumstances. The possibilities are eye opening. Meanwhile, I'm gonna get a cookie. Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Truths About Lies: III  Next Issue

Recent research has raised serious questions about the concept of ego depletion. See, for example, Martin S. Hagger and Nikos L. D. Chatzisarantis, "A Multilab Preregistered Replication of the Ego-Depletion Effect," Perspectives on Psychological Science 11:4, pp. 546-573, 2016. This paper describes a large, coordinated effort to reproduce the main effect that underlies the strength model, with more than 2,000 subjects at 24 different laboratories on several continents. The study failed to reproduce the previously claimed result, which almost conclusively nullifies the theory. However, some, including Baumeister, claim that the experiment was flawed, in that it was inherently unable to find the effect. Daniel Engber has provided a more accessible version of the situation in Slate.

[Baumeister 1998]
See, for example, Roy F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, M. Muraven, and D. M. Tice. "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" Journal or Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 1252-1265.

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