Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Flesh Is Weak: Ego Depletion

Update 9/11/2016: One of the best attributes of science is that it is self-correcting, which means that incomplete or flawed theories are eventually replaced with better, more accurate theories. One self-correction method is replication, where independent scientists repeat the original experiment and see if they get the same results. When replication fails, then we have a problem. After I published this post, I learned from a friend that the research behind ego depletion has been hard to replicate (hat tip: Deb Scharf). Here is a great description of the history behind this fascinating revelation.

Learning By Doing

Let's start with an extremely difficult challenge. I'm going to bake a dozen chocolate-chip cookies, and I'm going to put the plate right in front of you. They are fresh out of the oven, and they are baked to perfection: brown on all sides, and the core is still slightly doughy. I want you to sit there and inhale deeply. Let the smell of the chocolaty goodness wash over you. Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to eat any cookies. Instead, there's a second plate, and it's overflowing with radishes. You can have as many as you want. When you're done with your snack, let me know. I have a puzzle for you to complete.

Unfortunately, the puzzle that I have is unsolvable. (Are you starting to think this experiment is downright evil? Me too.) Let's rewind and try that again. Instead of being forced to eat radishes, suppose instead that you are allowed to give into temptation and eat one of the freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. If I gave you the same unsolvable puzzle, how long would you work? Would you work longer, shorter, or about the same amount of time as your radish-eating counterpart? 

"Raw Power, More Power" –Apollo 440

As you might imagine, the scenario described above is taken from an actual psychological experiment [1]. In that experiment, headed by Dr. Roy Baumeister, the scientists were interested in better understanding a psychological construct they called: ego depletion. A more common word for the same idea might be willpower. Different individuals have different baseline levels of willpower. So that's where the chocolate-chip cookies and radishes came in. They were designed to experimentally manipulate ego depletion, as well as to test the hypothesis that willpower is finite. The scientists designed the experiment to answer the following question. If you exhaust your supply in one domain (i.e., tempting food), would it carry over into a completely separate domain (i.e., problem solving)?

So let's go back to their original experiment. They had three conditions. The Radish group was designed to exhaust the participants' finite supply of willpower. The Chocolate group was exposed to the same smells, but their willpower wasn't tapped because they were allowed to indulge. Finally, they also included a No Food Control group, just in case some people were on a diet. They tested the relative strength of one's willpower by tracking how long people worked on an unsolvable puzzle. More time meant that they had more willpower. What do you think the pattern of results turned out to be? 

As you can see from Figure 1, the group who ate radishes gave up much sooner than the other two conditions. The Radish group spent less time on the puzzles, and they attempted fewer solutions. There wasn't any difference between the Chocolate and No Food Control groups. The results strongly suggest that we all have willpower, and that our supply of willpower can be easily drained when we deny ourselves. Moreover, ego depletion can carry over from one domain to a completely separate one.

Figure 1: The amount of time (in minutes) and the number of attempts
made on the impossible puzzle.

What's the Difference Between Willpower and Grit?

In a previous post, we talked about grit, which consists of two parts. The first part is passion, and the second part is perseverance [2]. Gritty individuals are enthusiastic about some goal, whether it is playing baseball or composing a moving piece of music. But as you know, there are lots of people who are passionate, but passion doesn't automatically translate into action. That's why grit's second ingredient, perseverance, is so important. Gritty people also keep working at the same goal, despite setbacks and occasional failures.

How does willpower factor into grit? I think it's related to the second component of the definition. If you are going to persevere, then you are going to need lots of willpower to keep going. For example, you might be inclined to stop practicing free throws because you feel tired. But someone who chooses to keep practicing, instead of stopping and doing something easy, must be exerting their willpower. 

But as we said above, willpower is a finite resource. It can be tapped by continuing to do something that you don't want to do. Or, it can diminish by not doing something you'd rather be doing. One way to restore willpower is to do something restorative, like take a nap (or eat a cookie, more on that later).

The S.T.E.M. Connection

What are the implications of research on ego depletion for education? One implication is that it might help us build empathy toward our students. For example, if we observe our students giving up too easily on a complex problem, then we might consider that one explanation is that they are ego depleted. In a typical classroom, it's probably the case that students are suppressing all sorts of behaviors that are not fit or acceptable in the classroom. There are probably as many drains on one's willpower as there are stimuli in the environment.

What, then, can be done? I think understanding the concept of "ego depletion" is an excellent argument for having recess. It gives kids a time to run around and recoup some of the energy that fuels willpower. Study hall can also be a restorative moment where the student is in charge, and he or she can decide how they want to allocate their time. A nutritious lunch also seems like a logical opportunity to restore one's willpower [3].

Is willpower something that can be built up over time, like a muscle or a skill? The current research is unclear [4]. However, if the energy hypothesis is correct, then it seems logical that individuals should be able to increase their willpower.

The current theorizing on ego depletion, willpower, and self-control seems to suggest it is a finite resource. Depleting your energy in one domain carries over into separate domains of life. But all is not lost. We just need to make sure to take a moment, and enjoy the sweetness life has to chocolate-chip cookies! 

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

[2] Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceNew York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6), 351-355.

[4] The study below suggests that ego depletion may also be related to the amount of glucose circulating in one's blood stream; thus, lunch can help elevate glucose levels and restore them back to baseline concentrations. 

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., Brewer, L. E., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphorJournal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 325.