People often have urges, desires, and natural tendencies that demand fulfillment. Giving in to such feelings will not always be pragmatic, socially acceptable, or healthy.
To deal with such challenges, individuals must exert self-control to regulate their actions. We often need to defer the gratification of these urges until a more appropriate time and place.
This kind of self-management takes a big chunk of mental effort, both emotional and cognitive. Some of these efforts demand less willpower, while others will require much more. Even moderately minor acts of self-control can take a toll.
Ego depletion occurs when people exhaust all of their available willpower on one task.
As a result, they cannot exert the same level of self-control on subsequent, often unrelated tasks. According to the strength model, self-control and willpower are finite resources determining the capacity for effortful control over dominant responses.
Once expended, it leads to impaired self-control task performance, known as ego depletion. The same idea behind this theory is that willpower can be compared to a muscle that can be both strengthened and fatigued. For example, if you exhaust yourself in running sprints, you will be less capable of performing other physical tasks.
Willpower and self-control are very much the same things, as suggested by research (Cherry, 2021). If one uses one’s available energy and reaches a state of ego depletion, one will have less self-control when confronted with ensuing tasks.
Self-control is important. Having good self-control is advantageous in several ways. People with high self-control levels may have better relationships and higher accomplishment levels.
On the other hand, those who lack self-control can experience social conflict and poor academic performance.
In This Article
What happens when self-control is depleted?
Think about how one feels after a long, arduous day. After doing some errands, working on projects, and running to appointments, does one still feel that there one has the energy to work on one’s personal goals? Once the day is done, you probably want to collapse in front of the TV and avoid doing anything.
The reason one might find oneself so exhausted and burned out after a busy day can be impacted by what psychologists refer to as the ego-depletion effect.
So what impact does ego depletion have on your day-to-day life? There are several ways that this phenomenon can influence your behaviors and decisions.
Studies have also discovered that when shoppers experience ego depletion, they are more likely to make inadequate or impulsive purchasing decisions.
The mere number of choices customers face can lead to such depletion. Consumers are compelled to weigh an immense number of choices. This complexity leads customers to become frustrated and overwhelmed.
When a state of low self-control has been reached, consumers will buy items based on simple criteria such as the most inexpensive item or the product being linked to a higher status.
One has probably experienced this if one has ever resorted to grabbing something off the market shelf just due to the fact that it was the lowest priced or a name brand you recognized.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
There is research that suggests depleting self-regulation can also leave people susceptible to impulsive behaviors, which include excessive or chronic consumption of alcohol (Lewczuk, 2022). This can be difficult for individuals predisposed to substance use or abuse.
Exhausting self-control on unrelated tasks might make it tougher to resist and say no when temptation strikes. Another thing ego depletion has also been correlated is to quitting smoking, contributing to smoking cessation failure.
Mental & Physical Performance
Mental toughness, passion, and perseverance are critical for athletic performance, but researchers have found that these tend to decline following complex mentally-taxing tasks (Lewczuk, 2022).
This suggests that the exhaustion of willpower due to mental demands can degrade performance on physical tasks. For student-athletes, this might indicate that taking a challenging exam right before a game might actually harm their performance.
Studies have suggested that ego depletion increases risk-taking. Specifically, ego depletion has increased self-reported sensation seeking and risk-taking and actual risk-taking in both incentivized and unincentivized tasks. However, there are studies that have uncovered the opposite effect, where ego depletion reduces risk-taking (Koppel, 2019).
We will look more into the challenges of ego-depletion research. Nevertheless, other studies have found that the effect of ego depletion on risk-taking depends on factors such as trait self-control, the amount of effort required in the risk task, and intuition to guide decision-making.
Emotion regulation refers to the methods by which individuals can influence the type of emotions they have, and for how long and intensely they experience and express them.
If an individual is at work all day and comes back home after dealing with difficult situations that force them always to respond calmly, their self-regulation will be depleted. Therefore, they will respond reactively to anything else that happens that day.
What causes ego depletion?
Various factors can contribute to ego depletion and make it harder to control yourself and regain willpower. Ego depletion is more likely to happen when a contributing factor is present.
The more factors you are facing, the faster your ego is depleted. It will become tougher to control yourself and regain willpower afterward.
Emotional distress is one factor in ego depletion – if one is feeling emotional distress, one’s willpower will be depleted more quickly.
Think about this situation: A former smoker’s spouse is in an accident and is taken to the hospital. Feeling upset and agitated, the former smoker buys a pack of cigarettes and starts smoking again. This is a widespread occurrence. But, why? It stands to reason that the person’s willpower is exhausted due to emotional distress.
Simply, it takes more energy to try something new. Being in an unfamiliar setting or doing strange things may hasten ego depletion. It takes more cognitive energy to deal with something new than to do the same things one is used to doing.
Simply, if one thinks a situation will be mentally taxing, one will become mentally fatigued faster. This is where one experiences illusory fatigue. Which essentially is when ego depletion occurs more often than you expect it to happen.
Research has proven that illusory fatigue uses more working memory capacity, causing you to become mentally drained faster (Lewczuk, 2022). Nevertheless, on the other hand, one can think that a situation will not be mentally taxing, and one can have more self-control.
Low Blood Sugar
Having lower blood sugar can make it more challenging to resist temptation. If one’s blood glucose is low, one has less energy generally. Researchers have found that people with lower blood glucose levels are less resistant to temptation (Hagger, 2010).
However, there are some studies that have indicated that another factor might be at play because just tasting something sweet can improve one’s willpower even if you do not eat it.
When one feels that one has no choice in reference to whether to do something or not, it depletes your willpower resources faster. One may be forced to do something, but when one is allowed to make one’s own decision, one is less likely to show self-control.
Acting or saying something that goes against what one believes diminishes one’s self-control, too. The cognitive dissonance between one’s actions and beliefs wears anyone out, causing ego depletion to happen faster.
Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability means no one’s heart beats at perfectly regular intervals. For example, there is a longer interval when one exhales than when one inhales. The heart rate can vary for various reasons, and researchers have found that when one has less self-control, one’s heart rate varies more (Hagger, 2010).
Age could affect how fast ego depletion occurs. However, there has not been much analysis conducted on ego depletion across the human lifespan, so it cannot easily be told precisely how it truly affects an individual.
The majority of the investigations on ego depletion have used college students as test subjects. Only a few studies have indicated that older people are more resistant to ego depletion than their younger coequals.
Those who are going through premenstrual syndrome show a lack of self-control. There was a study that linked their ego depletion to the higher energy needed by the ovaries, as they work harder during this part of the menstrual cycle.
Offsetting Depletion in the Short Term
Research has provided multiple ways to encourage people to continue exerting self-control and to somewhat replenish the resource itself (Baumeister & Maranges, 2016).
Usually, these investigations involve one self-control task followed by another, an unrelated one interrupted by or following another manipulation, which serves as the refresher or motivator. Let us look at some things one can do to offset ego depletion in the short term.
Feeling good has been proven to fend off depletion effects. Accepting a gift or viewing a comedy video offsets the effects of depletion.
Similarly, drained smokers who viewed a comedy video smoked more diminutive than their depleted counterparts who did not get a positive effect boost. Even implicit positive emotion sparked by positive subliminal messages counteracted depletion.
Prayer before using self-control to restrict emotional reactions to a funny video improved performance on the Stroop task, for example.
Likewise, reading words related to religiosities, such as divine or God, led to resistance against depletion effects for those who had to use self-control on a primary task and led to a better baseline.
The self and its ideals have been shown to neutralize depletion effects. For instance, considering the values most important to oneself or engaging in self-affirmation eliminated the depleting effects of a challenging writing task or stifling emotional reactions.
Tapping into the naturalistic use of self-control to monitor and edit emotions, thoughts, and behavior to reach a standard, researchers showed that keeping in mind one’s standards counteracts depletion (Baumeister & Maranges, 2016).
Persons who had to use self-control in prior activity and completed a phrase-making task with the word “I” did better than those who never referred to the self.
Activation of agentic responses can counteract depletion, emphasizing that motivations interact with self-control expenditures.
Directing people to take accountability for their actions and to feel autonomous can stave off depletion effects, for instance. Hearing an inspiring story of an athlete who overpowered many obstacles to become a world record holder also does so.
Participants’ statements in reference to perseverance led to better physical stamina on the task after a demanding puzzle task (Baumeister & Maranges, 2016).
In the same study, researchers gave some participants a cue of a man in a business suit and the phrase “You can do it!” These participants did better in physical effort after an attention control task than non-depleted participants (Baumeister & Maranges, 2016).
A leadership position and power over a subsidiary during a laboratory activity led to better performance on a self-control task and counteracted the effects of depletion. However, when participants were directed
with an additional test they had not planned, they performed worse and showed deficits in self-control. This shows that the anti-depletion effects of power are very short-lived, and those situational incentives promote individuals to expend diminishing resources rather than preserve them.
Cues that remind people of money, such as income-related phrases, narratives about growing up affluent, or handling play money, activate bold responses and goal pursuit. This occurs even when the money is not directly connected to the task or offered as a reward.
Another study showed that unscrambling money-related phrases led to better performance on the task among fatigued participants.
Whether one believes self-control is restricted affects how well one does on self-control tasks. For example, personal hypotheses about self-control resources can be used with a questionnaire emphasizing either a limited-resource model or a nonlimited-resource model.
Both preexisting and manipulated implicit theories regarding self-control resources have been found to affect self-control results and objective pursuit.
Effective planning diminishes the need to create new decisions at every step of a challenging process and gives a set of custom heuristics that frees up self-control resources.
For example, in one set of studies, unless participants formed implementation purposes, an initial self-control task led to deficits in a second self-control task. Notably, subjects made implementation choices to prepare for the task and then showed less depletion on a second task.
Resting after using self-control on one task and before using it on another has been demonstrated to neutralize the effects of ego depletion. For instance, subjects in one study were asked to balance on one leg and count down from two thousand by sevens, which is (as you can imagine) an extremely taxing mental and physical activity.
Before performing another task, subjects took a break, during which they answered easy questions on test questionnaires.
Compared to just a one- or three-minute break, those who were given a ten-minute break did just as well as non-depleted participants on the following task, indicating that the break restored some self-control resources.
Strengthening Self‑Control in the Long-Term
Physical exertion, like self-control, leads to exhaustion and impairment in subsequent activities that require strength.
However, in the long run, physical exertion, such as exercise and practicing self-control, leads to increased strength and stamina. Additionally, making plans to follow in potentially complex future scenarios decreases the number of decisions that must be made, or impulses must be overridden at that time, saving self-control resources.
Due to the fact that self-control is considered a domain-general resource, practicing self-control in one domain should lead to improvements in different tasks and in other domains. Indeed, practicing standing up straight to improve one’s posture, for example, can improve handgrip tasks.
Self-control abilities can be promoted by monitoring and bettering study habits or financial decisions or exercising regularly. These findings were substantiated by a laboratory test that measured visual tracking in the face of distraction.
Another study sought to increase self-control strength by having participants perform self-regulatory exercises, such as switching to their non-dominant hand for several routine activities and changing their speaking habits, such as not swearing.
Afterward, in a laboratory test, these people showed less depletion after overcoming prejudicial stereotyping than those who had not performed these exercises.
Self-control training can even help people quit addictive behaviors. Two weeks of refusing to eat sweets or regularly squeezing a handgrip enhanced a smoker’s quitting success rate comparable to those who did not practice self-control or just did simple math problems for two weeks.
Self-control practice can lead to improvements in romantic relationships. Simple and regular application of self-control to use one’s non-dominant hand or avoid abbreviations and curse words for two weeks improved control over inclinations to respond with physical aggression to one’s partner’s provoking behavior.
Habits are highly instinctive responses and therefore demand and deplete less self-control than overriding provocations and purposeful action.
Habits also resurface more often when people are depleted. Sound habits, then, counteract the adverse effects of depletion insofar as they are not depleting, and even when depleted, one can depend on them. Heading to the gym will make it easier to do it more frequently and consistently.
Thus, many longitudinal studies have proven long-term improvements in self-control abilities as a function of habitual and scheduled rather than random self-regulatory exercises. Indeed, one of the recent shifts in self-regulation theory has proposed that effective self-regulation operates through habits or habitual avoidance of conflict.
People with good self-control do not necessarily resist temptations and desires more often or more effectively than others. Instead, they seem to set up their lives to be less exposed to temptations.
Exercises, like using one’s non-dominant hand, can lead to significant improvements in the regulation of a seemingly unrelated domain, stressing the significance of self-control in meeting personal and social standards and the importance of practicing it.
Habitually practicing self-control – making the bed every morning, doing the dishes right after use, giving up sweets, or standing up straight – can improve your self-control in other areas.
It is packing a glucose drink in advance and planning precisely what time to turn off one’s computer to end the work day and when, how to get to the gym, and which workouts to do can lead to fewer conflicts or temptations while trying to reach a fitness goal, for example.
This also reduces the number of decisions that must be made during the workout. Planning, then, will not only make it easier to go to the gym again in the future but also will have beneficial effects on other applications of self-control, such as quitting smoking, consuming more healthfully, remaining calm during an argument, or opposing that impulse purchase.
Can you recover from ego depletion?
Knowing how ego depletion influences you is by no means an excuse to give up on your goals. One can recover from ego depletion, and it would be best if you utilised tactics that make it easier to keep your personal goals on track. Consider the following techniques:
Eat the Frog!
This is a classic project management technique that takes things to a whole new depth in the context of ego depletion. The concept behind the phrase “eat the frog” is that you must simply do the most challenging thing in your day first – even if that means actually eating an amphibian. Prioritize doing the most critical and formidable task before your willpower is depleted for the day.
Use If-Then Statements!
These are also known as implementation intentions (as we discussed earlier). These are views of what you plan to do if you get into a roadblock or temptation. For example, say you see something online you want to buy, you will put a plan in place to say that you will save the page for later to avoid any impulsive purchases.
Having a plan for situations where you know you are bound to break takes some of the strain out of thinking it over.
Indulge in a Little Sugary Treat!
As we stated before, there are some studies that suggest that there may be a link between blood glucose and willpower. Psychologists theorize that since glucose is energy for your brain, consuming sugar re-energizes it (Lewczuk, 2022).
There are also other theories that believe sugar helps simply by making you happy and that even tasting sugar without truly eating it can help fight the effects of ego depletion (Lewczuk, 2022).
Either way, if you find it hard to keep motivated to engage in good habits or avoid bad ones, try a little sugary treat which could include lemonade or gum to keep you going.
Be Positive and Mindful!
Similar to eating something sweet to potentially brighten your mood, a positive mood generally has been shown to fend off the effects of ego depletion. Therefore, try taking a break to watch a funny video or spend time with a special pet to reinvigorate your mind. To make sure you are not distracted for too long, set a timer for five or ten minutes so you can return to your task at hand.
Be Well Rested!
Being well-rested is connected to both improved mood and sounder mental performance. A pleasant attitude and full mental ability help decrease the effects of ego depletion. Remember not to go overboard with a new sleep habit – that shift could take more effort than it restores.
Limit Exposure to the Tempting Thing!
In one study, those who aimed to eat fewer unhealthy snacks were most successful when they reported witnessing fewer friends eating. This indicates that restricting exposure to a bad habit makes it easier to dodge it. This makes intuitive sense, of course, because we know it is more difficult to resist something right in front of you.
Maybe you are trying to cut restaurant take-out or limit online shopping. Try to make it as difficult as you can to be in a position that requires you to use willpower. Take a different route home, or set specific blockers on your computer for your regular shopping sites.
There are many instances of how ego depletion can influence your behaviors in big and small ways. What might happen if you are low on self-control due to ego depletion?
Ego Depletion in Psychology
Ego depletion is, therefore, a critical topic in experimental psychology, specifically social psychology, because it is a mechanism that contributes to understanding human self-control processes. There have both been studies to support and question the validity of ego depletion as a theory.
An analysis was undertaken to examine the influence of ego depletion and expectancy beliefs about the limited willpower of self-control on task performance and task persistence.
There were two ego-depleted vs non-ego-depleted groups, a group with positive expectancy beliefs, a group with negative expectancy beliefs, and a group without any expectancy beliefs. The participants were undergraduates of the University of Sargodha who were randomly distributed to each of the six tasks adapted to manipulate the independent variables.
Working memory and performance on problem-solving and task persistence were assessed, and scores and time were taken. The analysis indicated that the participants in the non-depleted group had significantly higher mean scores on problem-solving and working memory tasks than their counterparts in the ego-depleted group.
The group with the positive expectancy beliefs had the highest mean scores on working memory and problem-solving tasks compared to the other groups.
Ego Depletion in Finance
There are several ways that ego depletion can influence one’s finances. Sometimes decisions require thorough consideration and evaluation of all one’s choices, such as if one is looking at loan prospects. Other times, making a judgment call demands you to refrain from purchasing something alluring.
In both cases, you have to exert cognitive energy, which can be draining. After some time looking at your prospects or abstaining from spending, you may enter into a financial contract at the last minute or break your budget with a big splurge.
Researchers have found three leading causes of self-control failure that can cause consumer overspending (Turbo, 2021). One is that there is a conflict between the goal of getting what you want and the goal of saving money. The second happens when one does not track what you are spending. The third is that one spends more when one’s ego is depleted.
Regarding long-term goals, ego depletion can also set a person back. If one struggles to set aside enough money to pay off one’s credit card debt by the end of the year, it may be because one’s ego is chronically depleted from other areas.
Ego Depletion in Athletes
Athletes are constantly confronted with self-control demands. According to the strength model of self-control, people have limited self-control strength, which can become temporarily limited following self-control demands such as attention regulation.
When self-control strength is depleted, in a state of ego depletion, athletes are less persistent during laborious physical exercise, are less likely to follow their exercise routines, and tend to perform worse under tension (Englert, 2016).
In sports, for top-level performance, it is imperative to control one’s impulses or behavioral tendencies: for example, athletes need to downregulate their anxiety levels in high-pressure contexts like sporting competitions to get calmer and more centered on the actual task at hand, like performing a basketball free-throw, forcing themselves to work persistently on a straining physical exercise, or pushing themselves to adhere to work out plans over extended periods.
However, self-control does not always work. The strength model of self-control gives one explanation for setbacks in self-control behavior. A self-control act can be described as a process by which an individual tries to control or override dominant behaviors or response tendencies to achieve a specific goal.
Ego Depletion and Emotions
Ego depletion has also been shown to influence what is known as prosocial behavior, or social interactions designed to help others. When people reflect on their behaviors, they often times experience feelings of guilt. It is these guilty sentiments that sometimes lead people to behave in prosocial ways.
Studies have shown that people who are ego-depleted experience fewer sentiments of guilt. In examinations where people were induced into an ego-depleted state, these subjects were less likely to feel sensations of guilt and, therefore, less likely to engage in prosocial actions.
Ego Depletion and Food (Obesity)
Dieting is one of the most prominent examples of how ego depletion can sabotage one’s willpower. Research has found that chronic dieters are more inclined to ego depletion than non-dieters (Cherry, 2021). Because dieters use so much willpower to control their food intake, they become more prone to losing self-control in the face of temptation.
One might spend all day diligently sticking to the arranged diet. One eats a healthy breakfast and lunch and even resists the yummy doughnuts that a coworker brings into the office during the mid-afternoon break. That night, as one arrives home from work, one finds that the resolution has grown weak, and one can no longer have the self-control to stick to one’s diet.
Because this person has expended so much mental energy throughout the day resisting the urge to indulge, they have reached a state of ego depletion by dinner time. Instead of eating the healthy meal they planned, they order take-out from their favourite fast-food restaurant and spend the night watching TV and snacking on unhealthy foods.
Sticking to an incredibly restrictive diet can be extremely difficult. Dieting can present a challenge that other lifestyle changes do not. Because low blood glucose can cause one’s ego to deplete faster, one has to walk a fine line between eating less and too little. Adding to this is the mental fatigue that comes from altering a habit, and one can understand why dieting is challenging.
In one study, for example, participants (some who were dieting and some not) had to sit next to a bowl of tantalizing snacks or be far away from the desirable treats.
When the participants were afterward given a chance to eat ice cream, those who were dieting and had to sit near a bowl of treats ate more ice cream than the other participants. Because they had to use a lot of willpower to fight to consume the snacks, these participants exhausted their self-control resources.
Challenges to Ego-Depletion Research
Lack of Clear Definition of Self-Control
The field lacks well-articulated and generally agreed-upon functional definitions of self-control that can guide the current studies on ego depletion.
In spite of the fact that some investigations refer to inhibitory control as their functional definition, the term inhibition is commonly used in a rather generic sense without actually being explicit to different inhibitory processes proposed in the literature.
Moreover, even more problematic is that some studies define self-control too broadly as the ability to control thoughts, emotions, and behavior or any monitoring and transformation of behavior (Lurquin, 2017).
The justifications for selecting self-control tasks are equally flawed. Many studies use circular reasoning to justify task selection by stating that the task was used before and had a depleting result.
Even when some autonomous justifications are provided, the characteristics used to justify a task contrast greatly, including being intellectually demanding, requiring exertion, and simply being challenging.
Consequently, wide-ranging tasks like taking standardized tests or even balancing on one leg count as self-control tasks (Lurquin, 2017).
Lack of Empirical Validation for Self-Control Tasks
Various tasks used in ego-depletion research, such as observing a video while ignoring words emerging onscreen and writing essays without using specific letters, have not been independently validated as effectual measures of self-control.
Some such assignments have not been used outside ego-depletion research, and some even lack unembellished measures of task execution that could be used as indices of self-control (Lurquin, 2017).
This lack of independent validation of self-control tasks is problematic because it is difficult to derive a precise prediction for any ego-depletion study. For instance, according to the strength model, the ego-depletion effect should be observed only when tasks #1 and #2 – both involve self-control and come from the same self-control resources.
It is ambiguous, however, whether various task combinations used in ego-depletion research meet these essential conditions.
Lack of Well-Specified Models That Make Falsifiable Predictions
The existing models with the purpose of explaining the ego-depletion effect are currently too underspecified to permit other researchers to derive unambiguously testable projections.
For example, the strength model does not specify how the self-control resources are consumed by tasks #1 and #2 and when the remaining available resources are low enough to start impairing subsequent performance on task #2 (Lurquin, 2017).
Such critical resource consumption parameters must be more formally specified before one can resolve whether an experiment should produce the ego-depletion effect.
Despite some relevant historical precedent, this theoretical issue has been overlooked in ego-depletion research (Lurquin, 2017).
In a compelling critique, they articulated various problems with resource hypotheses, including the circularity issue and the ambiguity surrounding the hypothesized resource execution functions.
This critique led some theorists to abandon the resource idea altogether and others to attempt to identify better the nature of resources and their consumption processes in the form of computational models. Models of ego-depletion phenomena need such formalization.
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