The Myth of Ego Depletion

Ego DepletionFor the past twenty years a narrative has been building steam. Willpower, it appeared, was a consumable commodity. If you used up your willpower too early in the day, you were left defenseless by evening, unable to continue making right choices.

A previous generation was known to say, “The devil made me do it!” Moderns were able to say with scientific verve, “I just ran out of willpower.”

Then junior scientists such as Evan Carter attempted to replicate the famous willpower experiments, only to be unable to repeat the results. A meta study of prior results was attempted, only to show no effect of “ego depletion.”

The formal Association of Psychological Science (APS) reports are not yet published, but the uncopyedited, unformatted reports can be reviewed at the APS website, and will be replaced by the published versions as soon as they are final.

For those of us wishing for a shorter synopsis, Daniel Engber wrote a cover story for last month’s Slate regarding the paradigm shift, titled Everything is Crumbling.

This mythos of the consumable willpower had been particularly damning with respect to rigorous faiths such as Mormonism. Popular wisdom proclaimed that so much self control had to be bad. Why waste the precious quantity of willpower on such silly frivolities as controlling thoughts, avoiding coffee, tea, and tobacco, or making any choice that denied the “natural man?”

It is unclear what, if any, impact this belief in consumable willpower has had on those now self-declared as “Nones.” How many others, still attempting to retain some level of faith, have felt they must yield to powerful urges to give in to temptation, to preserve their precious “willpower” for the few decisions they felt were in fact crucial to their futures?

It’s still silly to attempt rigorous tasks without sufficient preparation. Go ahead and eat before going grocery shopping. Don’t surround yourself with cookies and chips if you’re trying to eat a healthy diet. Don’t try to give up drinking by frequenting bars.

But you no longer need to feel like you are incapable of resisting temptation after a hard day. You don’t need to fear obeying the commandments at the expense of achieving other goals.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

18 thoughts on “The Myth of Ego Depletion

  1. As the more recent science shows, it appears to me more likely that exercising willpower should create more willpower, at the very least by creating better habits. The first time you use your willpower to go running when you don’t want to, you may only make it a block. But the second time, you might make it two blocks, and then a half-mile, a mile and so on. By overcoming your habitual desire not to exercise, you make willpower habitual, and it becomes easier to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing.

    The chocolate chip cookie study described by the Slate article seems incredibly silly. The way is is described, there are dozens of reasons that the people who ate chocolate chip cookies would have performed better.

  2. Meg,

    Thanks for sharing this. Daniel Engber sure wrote a sensational article. To read his account, it sounds like the idea of “ego depletion” has been soundly refuted. I greatly appreciate that you linked the APS reports, including the two responses from other researchers in the field. The actual Registered Replication Study’s results are much less convincing than Engber makes them sound.

    I fully believe in the principle of willpower as a finite resource. In fact, it is the only way that I can make any sense of the Gospel in light of human experience. First, addressing the replication study: I am highly unconvinced that the experimental procedure would either manipulate depletion (the IV) or measure reduced willpower (DV). I don’t see how it can even be called a replication study, since it doesn’t actually use an procedure that has ever been used to investigate ego depletion. The robust effect sizes from such a wide variety of studies, in so many settings, cannot be disproved by a smaller study using brand new procedures and measurements.

    To address the gospel implication: I am fairly new to the field of psychology and mental health. I started my undergrad in 2008 and graduated from the Master’s program in 2013. During this time I have never seen ego depletion used as an attack on religions in general or Mormonism specifically. The therapeutic application of this principle is generally to help alleviate shame (the belief that individuals are inherently evil or bad) and promote hope (Like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened.)

    Blaming the fact that willpower is finite for people making bad decisions is like blaming the Atonement. Surely some people who would otherwise not sin, feel that it is okay because they will repent. Does it follow that God would not have an Atonement, or keep it secret, lest anyone justify their sin?

    And for secular individuals to blame religion for using up willpower frivolously, they might as well argue that the solution to crime is to abolish all laws, because if there was no law, no one could break it. Especially with the wealth of research supporting the fact that willpower, while finite on the short term, is a renewable resource for which we can also build expanding storage, it seems silly to argue that people who use more regulating “trivial matters” would be at any disadvantage compared to someone who doesn’t. In fact, I’ve often seen it argued that people who more regularly exercise willpower in small things are advantaged when it comes to bigger issues. And this in the secular realm.

    I’m sure that there are some people who would try to use the idea of ego depletion to undermine religious belief. But these are the same people who would use anything to attack religion no matter how ridiculous the connection. (cognitive dissonance comes to mind as a weapon often brandished that actually can be seen to support the truths of the Gospel). But this doesn’t mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist.

    So, 1) I personally don’t find the current study to contradict ego depletion. 2) I don’t think that such a finding would benefit anyone, and 3) I believe that correctly understanding the nature of willpower strengthens a testimony of the Restored Gospel rather than weakening it.

  3. There is a lot of good research on this idea, and the reality is that willpower has been demonstrated in several studies to be a resource that grows in strength as it is used, like a muscle. The more willpower you use to control thoughts, appetites, and emotions, the more easily you are able to use willpower the next time. Each effort, in other words, strengthens willpower, not weakens it.

    Psychology loves the “finite resource” version of willpower, but the newest studies are in the area of weight control. Turns out, if you want to be able to resist that pastry, you practice by resisting less tempting items, and then are able to more effectively resist the big ones.

    Interesting to me that willpower turns out to be a lot like love–the more you use and give, the more you have!

  4. So are you saying that willpower is in fact unlimited? When we fail to obey all the commandments with perfect exactness, is it because we are evil, cunningly making a mockery of God’s commandments by deliberately flouting them? Or when we fail to obey, it is because we are simply weak? Willpower is like a muscle, but muscles are not unlimited in power either, as efficiently as we work them out. We will never be able to be perfect, and attacks on the psychology of limited willpower are a manifestation of unrealistic LDS perfectionism.

    If we say “my willpower ran out,” we are facing our problems realistically. We are acknowledging that if we want to overcome certain problems, we will need to take manageable steps to increase our reservoir of willpower. I find this much more empowering than the perfectionistic, self-loathing saint who feels endless guilt at their constant stream of inadequacies. Perfectionistic guilt is in itself, the biggest excuse of all not to improve.

  5. I guess I’m saying that willpower isn’t as consumable as the ego depletion folks have been suggesting.

    One’s belief about whether or not it is possible to withstand factor powerfully in whether or not one does withstand.

  6. Well Meg, it is true that faith in one’s abilities contributes greatly to one’s reservoir of willpower. And you are probably right that a psychology emphasizing limitations decreases that faith. It’s similar to what Victor Frankl said about the importance of overestimation. If we estimate someone (or ourselves) realistically, we will inevitably come short of that estimation. But when we overestimate someone, they will reach a higher potential.

  7. Nate,

    I might be way off base here – and Meg can correct me if I’m wrong – but I think the point is that willpower is behavioral patterns which can be reinforced through practice rather than some quantifiable substance that our minds/bodies deplete as they “use it up”.

    A rough analogy would be confusing the programming of a computer with how much power is left in the battery.

  8. I like the analogy of programming versus battery power.

    I would perhaps say that we’ve recently been trained to do things that are not consistent with natural limits. Because of that training, we have been encouraged to allow ourselves to yield due to belief in ego depletion. But it turns out that is not a limit.

    I am reminded of a Dr. Sues story where a queen wouldn’t shut up. Then she was told that her life would end when she had said her life’s allotment of words. She instantly stopped talking.

    In a similar manner, we have been giving ourselves permission to fail based on a false construct. It is not that limits don’t exist, but the hypothesized limit is deprecated, similar to how the former belief that every female disorder could be attributed to hysteria became deprecated circa 1900.

  9. Nate,

    As a firm believer in Ego Depletion, I would say that a more accurate analogy would be willpower as the battery and OS/firmware power utilization code/driver/utility together as a system.

    More efficient programming, better behavioral patterns, can significantly extend the life of the battery and the amount of useful work the laptop can perform. However, even then there are limits to how far we can go without recharging.


    Again, I don’t have any common point of reference to your statement that we’ve “been encouraged to allow ourselves to yield.” Perhaps a reference here would help me. My total experience has been that understanding ego depletion empowers people to find and write more efficient power management strategies and remind them of the necessity of recharging (usually eating healthily, sleeping enough, engaging in some rest (i.e. Sabbath observance), and uplifting recreation.)

  10. Well, far be it from me to back down from an analogy war!!

    I think the closest comparison for our will power would not be to computers, but to muscles. Yes, they can get tired and worn down, but it is only by exerting and pushing them that they get stronger. Muscle memory and willpower are, after all, VERY closely interrelated.

  11. Jeff G.

    Yes! Roy Baumeister, the primary originator of the idea of ego depletion argued exactly that at least as early as 2000 (first major experiment was published in 1998).

    “The resource needed for self-control is a limited, consumable
    strength, much like a muscle’s ability to work. . . . .A
    strength model entails that the available stock of resources is
    depleted by exertion and must be replenished before the full
    measure is available again. It thus resembles a muscle that becomes
    fatigued by exertion and becomes less able to function. . . . .Thus, not
    only does self-control show short-term fatigue effects
    like a muscle does, it also shows long-term improvement, just as a
    muscle gets stronger through exercise. In other words, there is a
    long-term effect of gaining strength with practice.”

  12. I think there is a fine difference, however, between viewing self control as something that runs out and viewing the power to retain fine control over one’s self control as the thing that runs out.

    I can be utterly exhausted, taxed by unimaginable stress, yet still control certain aspects of my self-expression. Having been forced to make “too many decisions” will not result in me spending an evening engaged in polyamorous lovemaking. Having been asked to make too many decisions will not result in me picking up a gun and shooting someone.

    A muscle may give out, and my strength to exert fine control over myself may also give out. But it doesn’t therefore follow that I will be justified in committing heinous acts. The reasonable man/woman will take responsibility for their resource management. If their challenge is becoming physically incapacitated prior to the end of their day, the reasonable man/woman will arrange their day so that they don’t run out of strength in the middle of crossing a road.

    Similarly, if the challenge is becoming emotionally raw prior to the end of the day, the reasonable man/woman will arrange their day so they don’t run out of self control in the middle of a neighborhood orgy or other similar undesirable participative event.

    In the handicapped community, there is an analogy to having enough “spoons.” This reflects energy to get through the day. But it doesn’t follow that one is rendered fundamentally unable to control oneself at some point while retaining enough energy to commit sins (versus sinning by omission).

  13. Meg,

    This is a valuable distinction. I think that this is where pseudoscience and pop psychology comes into play. Baumeister et. al. would suggest that making decisions does not deplete self-control. Exertion or effort also do not create the same effect. For example, individuals performing complex math problems before a self-control experiment rate the level of effort of this task as equal to individuals engaging in a thought suppression exercise. However, they consistently perform better afterward.

    But even in situations where there is depletion, I still haven’t seen any psychologist argue that people aren’t responsible for their actions or that they are excused in committing heinous acts. In fact, what I read explicitly supports your idea of taking responsibility for resource management. There is also some very interesting research literature on the relationship between motivation and self-control depletion. Basically, it support the finite resource model, in that the amount of self-control available to us may be closely tied to the degree to which we value the outcome. This would be similar to when people find more strength and endurance in life/death situations than they would be capable of exerting otherwise.

  14. Meg, I love that you have to exercise willpower to resist an evening of polyamorous lovemaking. That’s adorable!

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