Ego Depletion: An Influential Theory in Psychology
We all have faced moments when we didn’t know what we truly wanted, and even when we ended up choosing a direction or making a decision, we couldn’t really justify it. It seems like we are not fully aware of why we do the things we do and that can be terrifying.
Of course, the complexity of the human nature as described above has not gone unnoticed.
Psychologists and social scientists are constantly trying to create models of human behavior and analyze the human psyche.
One particular issue that has been the focus of many psychology studies is the impacts on people that have the increasingly demanding rhythms of life, but also the ever-increasing work-related and personal obligations.
One can say that the modern society is actually a “high-speed” society and that makes it far more complicated than what it used to be in the past. Modern day-to-day routine, work, commuting, interpersonal relationships or even institutions tend to lack the simplicity and sense of stability of the past.
Instead, what we are faced with is the anxious lifestyle of the big cities, the rapid evolution of science and technology, the mechanization of the work environment, the information overload or infobesity that turns the man into a “racehorse” that is constantly on the run to meet his or her obligations – whether they are real or fictitious.
One theory that analyzes exactly these phenomena is the Ego Depletion Theory.
The term was first introduced by the American social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his fellow researchers in their article Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? which was published in 1998.
In short, this early work was focused on the mental strength that people show when faced with difficult situations, and whether those situations have ultimately an effect on their decision-making. The result of this analysis was the Ego Depletion Theory, which influences the scientific thought until today.
Let’s see, what this theory is really about, how it affects our decisions and lives and of course, why it so influential among the psychology community.
THE EGO DEPLETION THEORY
The initial influence: Freud
To understand how the idea of this theory came to Baumeister and his fellow researchers, we need to go a little back in time and examine something a little more complex: the theories of Sigmund Freud.
As you all may know, Freud was one of the trailblazers of modern psychology and influenced global intelligence more than anyone else.
While this may be an exaggeration, the truth is that whether you are a professional, a student, or someone not related with psychology at all, you have heard a thing or two about his work.
Truth is that those who are not so intensely involved in the field of psychoanalysis know him mainly for the “Oedipus Complex”, but in fact Freud has consolidated also other scientific views, which are still being studied and are still trying to be proven experimentally – as much anything that has to do with the human psyche.
However, it is interesting to look at Freud’s views, for it is very likely that the theory later documented by Baumeister and others was scientifically influenced by Freud’s work.
Freud, beyond the familiar Oedipus complex, has also established the theory about the three aspects of the human psyche (or mind).
What does this mean?
For Freud, our psyche or our personality consists of three distinct but interacting with each other parts.
The first part is the “Id” (or “It”). This is the part of the psyche in which all the primitive instincts of a person are found, such as erotic attraction, hunger, and thirst, and it constitutes a collective name for the biological needs and instincts of the individual. Its main driving force is the principle of achieving the highest possible pleasure and avoiding any negative feelings.
The second part is the “Ego” (or “I”). Ego is governed by the principle of reality, and its purpose is to satisfy the desires of Id, taking into account the limitations of reality. The Ego is the organized part of our personality and is responsible for basic functions such as the assessment of various situations, the control of reality, judgment, compromise, finding solutions to various problems, etc. The Ego distinguishes what is real, and thus helping us sort our thoughts and understand them.
The third part is the “Super-Ego” (or “Over-I”). The Super-Ego aims at perfection and, while it constitutes an organized part of the personality, it is mostly unconscious. Super-Ego can be visualized as the conscience that punishes people with feelings of guilt, every time they act in socially unacceptable ways. Superego is the opposite of “Id” because it wants to make the individual act in a socially acceptable way while “Id” only wants to satisfy its instincts. So, as we have said, it acts as a consciousness-guard that keeps us away from anti-social behaviors and from various taboos.
If you want to learn more about this concept, check out this short explanatory video by actualized.org called “Id, Ego, Superego – Understanding An Old School Psychology Concept”.
But what does this all have to do with Baumeister?
Baumeister, based on Freud’s theory, assumed and tried to prove scientifically that the more the Ego fights and resists the wishes of Id, the more tired it becomes.
This means that the Ego has increasingly lower stamina to take part in activities, but also in life in general.
To take things from the start, Baumeister firstly made the hypothesis that people, in order to adapt to the various social environments in which they participate, they have the ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation means that the individual has the ability to change and adapt his or her actions to comply with a remarkable range of social and casual demands.
For example, the ability of self-regulation requires the individual to greet someone back when they greet him or talk in a formal speech when addressing a person of a higher social status.
Generally, self-regulation forms an important basis for the perception of free will and socially desirable behavior, while providing benefits to both the individual and the society. Self-control can help people achieve various desired results, more productivity and higher performance at work, succeeding in school, achieving popularity, better mental health, and conflict-free interpersonal relationships.
Check out Roy Baumeister himself talk about self-control during his visit in the RSA in his speech called “Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy”.
FORMING THE EGO DEPLETION THEORY
All of this assisted in the development of the Ego Depletion Theory, as it was named by Baumeister.
The theory of ego depletion refers to the idea that the decision-making process in our brains, especially when they are opposing to our preferences, has limited power. Every person has a certain amount of endurance and willpower, and the more they exhaust them, the more they become vulnerable in making bad decisions about themselves and their health.
In short, for Baumeister, the psyche (or the mind) is a muscle – the more it gets depleted the more difficult it is to make the right decisions.
At this point, you may be wondering how Baumeister succeeded in establishing scientifically an idea which – obviously in simpler terms – has crossed the mind of most of us. The answer is pretty simple and has to do with food and the human need for social acceptance.
So, what did he do?
He gathered 30 students at his university, which he divided into three research teams of ten people. At the same time, in the room next to theirs, his wife was baking chocolate cookies. The smell of the baking cookies would penetrate into the room where the research groups were trying to solve some puzzles.
In the same room, Baumeister also places a bowl with radishes with the following idea in mind:
The first group would be allowed to choose between the chocolate cookies and the radishes, the second group would only eat the cookies, and the third team (poor guys!) would have to eat the radishes, without being allowed to even taste the chocolate cookies.
After that, all students were left alone in the room and directed to solve a puzzle that was designed to be impossible to solve.
What the researchers wanted to test was how long would it take for the students to give up and if spending a few minutes resisting cookies would make it harder for them to keep trying.
So what effect did this set-up have on the students?
As you may have already guessed, the results supported Baumeister’s initial hypothesis. The students that were not given the opportunity to taste the freshly baked cookies dropped any attempt to solve the requested puzzle in just 8 minutes on average.
On the other hand, the group that was free to eat the cookies continued their efforts to solve the puzzle for twice as long, succeeding in being focused for a total average of 19 minutes!
The researchers concluded that the group that ate the radishes had to use a lot more self-control to resist the freshly baked cookies, so when they got to the puzzle test, they didn’t have much willpower left to spend.
On the other hand, the participants that got to eat the cookies didn’t have to control their urges and so their willpower reserves were much higher and therefore worked at the puzzle longer.
Nevertheless, as a single experiment is not enough to confirm a whole behavioral theory and also maybe because Baumeister liked the idea of tormenting his students, he went forward with another experiment.
His second experiment was more relevant to the everyday life and of course, it also included chocolate cookies.
How did he decide to “torture” the experiment participants this time? In the second experiment, Baumeister and his team called in 20 participants and instructed them to talk with each other for 20 minutes. They even gave them some supporting questions to help them start the conversation easier.
As you may imagine, many of the questions were related to common small-talk topics, like “Where are you from”, “How are you”, “What are you studying”, and so on.
On top of that, the researchers instructed the participants to try to learn the names of the other participants.
In the next stage of the experiments, the participants would be required to go alone in a separate room and write down the names of the participants they liked to be partnered with for the final stage.
At this point, the researchers just throw away all the notes the participants have written and just randomly assign people to two groups:
- The ones that will be told that all participants wanted to continue with them, and
- The ones that will be informed that no one wanted to be their partner.
The partnering though never happened. The researchers said an excuse to all participants and move them to the final stage of the experiment, in which they brought food back into the equation.
During the final stage, all participants had to sit next to a bowl of 35 cookies and grade them according to aroma, taste, and shape.
The results showed that the participants that had been informed that were rejected by all other participants, consumed twice the amount of biscuits compared to those who felt socially acceptable because everyone wanted to be partnered with them.
Does this behavior of binge-eating seem familiar?
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE EGO DEPLETION THEORY FOR SOCIAL REALITY
The new idea that Baumeister essentially introduced in the theory of psychology is that it is hard to maintain self-control, especially in difficult and stressful situations.
The more frequently someone finds themselves in such situations, the more difficult it is to resist the temptation to act contrary to the rules their culture dictates and it becomes easier to just be lost in the desires of the Id.
Or in more Freudian words, it becomes easier to be left to be guided by the various appetites of the Id.
What does this mean for Baumeister and the scholars that support the theory of ego depletion?
It means that people have a certain level of endurance and limited willpower.
In other words, the ability of a person to suppress his or her emotional impulses, against the prevalence of their will in relation to a specific objective and the actions required to achieve it.
Practically, it means that we all have a certain limit and when we surpass it, we tend to make decisions that may be damaging to our personal progress and health.
There are many examples in human life where this theory can be applied, and they have contributed in strengthening the acceptance of the ego depletion theory in the scientific community.
There are so many moments in human day-to-day life, where a person finally reaches that point that make them say: “I cannot take this anymore”.
Therefore, according to this theory, we all have to give ourselves a break once in a while in order to allow the levels of our mental energy return to normal and to be able to work again with a clearer mind even when we find ourselves in difficult and stressful situations.
At the same time, as this research has shown, another important element is added to the human personality and this is the concept of willpower, a quality we all ought “take care of”, as there are many situations and processes that can affect it – such as our ability to self-control – which affect not only ourselves but also the people around us.
CRITICISM: IS THE THEORY A REAL THING?
When a theory causes that much noise in the scientific community, as the theory of ego depletion has caused, it is only logical that it is considered as the predominant example in the psychoanalytic approach.
However, Evan Carter was among the very first to spot some weak points in the theory and set to test it out.
In his most known experiment in 2015, Evan Carter and his partner Lilly Kofler decided to test this theory using the most up-to-date technology and research tools available.
Two professors from the University of Miami decided to perform some quasi-experiments. While using the same setting as in Baumeister’s experiments, they used a larger number of participants and implemented additional analytical tools to examine their results.
What they found was that self-control works as it is predicted in the limited endurance model, only when the examined result is participants’ performance on standardized tests.
In other words, they have scientifically proved that the only reason that Baumeister’s and others’ experiments have had a noticeable effect is that they functioned with a manipulation task in which they manipulated the participants and an outcome task, on which they measured the effect of the first task.
They concluded that, although the surveys seemed to make a reasonable conclusion, the only reason they were legit was that they were following a particular method, which would always lead to this specific result.
Therefore, based on this and other similar research, it can be concluded that we all capable of showing enough mental strength to withstand anything that stands before us, but the real issue behind ego depletion has a different nature: Are we truly willing to overcome our obstacles?
A NEW BEGINNING
The revision of the Ego Depletion Theory essentially ended the scientific results that justified people reluctance and indifference many times to important situations, pretending they were emotionally or mentally tired.
These new researchers prove a very important thing for all of us: everyone is as tired as they mentally let themselves be.
To support this view, Carol Dweck did some additional research experiments. To avoid presenting in much detail yet another experiment, let’s just go straight to Dweck’s conclusions, which are the ones that are actually the most interesting to us.
The results of Dweck’s research showed that people who believed they had a really limited amount of willpower seemed to be the ones who were more vulnerable and gave up more easily when requested to solve the puzzles the researchers had asked.
On the contrary, the participants who had more faith in themselves and thought they had unlimited endurance and were confident that could overcome whatever obstacle was placed in front of them were the ones that did not show any sign of ego depletion.
On top of that, they were the ones that endured the longest during the research experiments conducted by Dweck.
From all the above we can conclude that the theory of ego depletion has been established to explain the phenomenon in which a person that truly believes that something is possible to be done, has the willpower to adapt reality to their beliefs.
This practically means that people often believe and act according to what seems the easiest solution. Most people will choose to take the easy path because they are not prepared to outgrow the mental limitations they think they have.
The conclusions of Dweck’s work are beautifully summarized in her TED talk: “The power of believing that you can improve | Carol Dweck”.
Modern research shows that people’s actual potential is what they think it is. If a person thinks he or she is psychologically vulnerable, or that they get tired easily even though they do not try hard enough, it is mathematically certain that their reality will also revolve around these same issues.
The analogy is simple and understandable by everyone: when we think we are tired, this makes us even more exhausted than we truly are, and after getting a reward, then we immediately feel better and more ready for the next challenge.
All the above function as a placebo effect, of course, because in fact it is enough for one to believe in his or her abilities to tackle the required task, and that suffices to feel much better and to live a more lively life.
The fact that the Ego Depletion Theory has proved to be invalid by some scientists does not mean that social psychologists have stopped or should stop studying it.
It is very common in the scientific community a theory to be constantly evaluated, and while initially it may not be accepted, after some time an even more powerful and modern tool has been discovered to verify it.
A very typical example is Copernicus’s theory about the round earth, a theory that was verified at least 150 years after its discovery and Copernicus death.
Nevertheless, since most of us are not psychologists or sociologists, we have to live a life based on what we know now. Living in the moment means that each one of us must place themselves in the highest position and understand that whatever the obstacle is and that whatever the situation is, we have the ability to cope.
However, the emotions that we feel are our bodies’ way of conveying information that our conscious self could miss. When a feeling of tiredness doesn’t stop after a while, we should listen to it as a source of insight.
We can gather our willpower to finish tasks that we don’t enjoy, only for a certain amount of time and of course we will never become the best we can if we keep ignoring what the negative feelings tell us about ourselves. By examining our lack of willpower, we can find a guide to what we truly want to do in life.
Life is too short to pass it feeling mentally tired and exhausted. We should spend our time as productively as possible, making as many things as possible that interest and revitalize us.
Time is running out with each passing day, so let’s try to live life as loudly and passionately as we can.