Nick Hobson Ph.D.

Ritual and the Brain

Self-Control

You Have More Control Over Your Self-Control Than You Think

Ego-depletion gives an incomplete (and pessimistic) outlook on willpower.

Posted Jun 01, 2018

You’re one week into your new diet and all of your meals have consisted of day-old chicken breast and soggy vegetables. It’s Friday night, and your buddies are tempting you with an invite out for beer and nachos. You’re too tired to withstand the temptation, so you imbibe and indulge. To help ease your post-decisional dissonance, the next day you “come across” a blog post telling you why diet cheat days are important from time to time.

It’s a story we're all too familiar with. You know how difficult it is to continuously exert effortful control when feeling mentally depleted and fatigued. The science tells us so: engaging in tasks that require self-control might actually reduce our performance in subsequent tasks. Exercising self-control in your diet Monday to Thursday empties the willpower tank, making those Friday (nacho) temptations all that more difficult to stave off.

Researchers call this phenomenon ‘ego depletion’ — and it’s a hot topic among those studying the psychological underpinnings of willpower and self-control. New findings, however, suggest there’s more to the picture than what ego-depletion says.

Ego Depletion and Theories of Self-Control

The concept of ego-depletion stems from what psychologists term the ‘strength model of self-control’ which describes self-control as being dependent on a pre-set supply of finite energy. Proponents of the strength model view self-control as a limited resource, something that must be restored in order for you to continue chipping away at your strenuous goal pursuits. The strength model is believed to explain why we have those beer and nacho cheat days and Netflix binge-watching sessions — despite our best intentions. 

However, we’re now learning that subjective experience of effort matters more for our self-controlled behavior. That is, when we “see” something as effortful, we will show poorer self-control. If true, there’s powerful insight here. It means you can have more control simply by shifting your perspective on the things you do in life.

Lay Theories of Self-Control

We often come up with stories to make sense of the world around us. Scientists call these stories ‘lay theories,’ as they are construed from our own anecdotal evidence, personal experiences, and observations.

Not surprising, we have our own lay theories of self-control. Research has shown that individuals vary in their beliefs about the nature and malleability of self-control. Findings also suggest that these personal anecdotes often underlie our response to challenging tasks. A person who has the lay theory that self-control is a limited resource will be more likely to give in to temptations.

Adding to this idea, a group of psychologists out of the University of Waterloo in Canada looked at how personal narratives play a role in our ability to express self-controlled behavior. In a series of three studies, they set out to investigate just how our subjective perceptions of effort impact the sort of lay theories we construct about self-control, and in turn, how these theories shape our ability to exert self-control in real life.

The Studies and Findings

The first study looked at how our past experiences with self-control serve to shape our attitude towards it. One group of participants was asked to reflect on a time where self-control came easy to them while the other group was asked to report a time where they had to really break a sweat in order to stay in line. All participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire designed to test their lay theories of self-control (e.g., is self-control a limited resource, or no?).

The second study took it a step further by assessing lay theories after having participants complete either a high or low effort self-control task. The high effort task asked participants to a read a passage and remove all “e”s and spaces while also changing all “a”s to “A”s. In the low effort condition, participants simply rewrote a passage word-for-word. Everyone then completed the same questionnaire as in Study 1 regarding their lay theories of self-control.

Finally, the third study looked at how people’s experience with effort on a day-to-day basis might affect their lay theories of self-control.  Each participant was asked to perform an effortful task every day for two weeks straight. The researchers then measured the participants’ perceived effort and lay theories of self-control like before.

The results across all three studies are clear: They found a link between perceived effort of self-control and the lay theory that self-control is a limited resource. In other words, the more taxing we perceive a task to be, the more we view self-control as something that degrades over time. And the more likely we are to give in to temptations down the road.

The ‘New School’ of Self-Control Psychology

What these findings tell us is that the concept of ego-depletion falls short in its explanatory value. According to the study’s findings, it seems that our egos can only be depleted if we perceive them to be. This opens the door to a more flexible and optimistic perspective of self-control.

Instead, the current findings lend support to a more growth-oriented perspective of self-control abilities. To increase your self-control, you start by shifting your mental state in order to ‘see’ certain tasks as less effortful. Indeed, studies suggest that by mentally framing a task as amusing or beneficial, we can reduce our perceived effort. According to this team of researchers, this might help promote a less limited perspective of self-control that can potentially be carried over to your future endeavours.

This different lens leaves more space for changing mindsets when it comes to your ability to exert self-control, and helps alleviate the dooming thought that your self-control abilities are completely pre-determined (and limited).

Keep these findings in mind for the upcoming summer months, and know that the coveted beach body you’re striving for is a perspective-shift away. And challenge the notion that your ego is depletable: Your self-control fuel tank should never be on E.

References

Klinger, J. A., Scholer, A. A., Hui, C. M., & Molden, D. C. (2018). Effortful experiences of self-control foster lay theories that self-control is limited. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 1-13.