Understanding the Dangers of "Ego-Depletion"

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(Image: Someecards)

This is a guest post by Dan Ariely, James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

I’ve always suspected that we start each day with a limited number of decision-making points that, once depleted, leave us cognitively impaired. This is part of the reason that automating minutiae, adopting rituals, and applying creativity only where it’s most valuable (e.g. not deciding what to eat for breakfast) is so important to me.

I just don’t have the bandwidth to get big things done by doing otherwise. Perhaps, just as Phelps was born with bigger lungs than 99.9% of the population, and just as some people only need four hours of sleep per night, some people are born with more decision-making “hit points” than others?

Food for thought. This leads to Dan’s discussion of “ego-depletion” and how to insure against making bad decisions…

Enter Dan

From your own experience, are you more likely to finish half a pizza by yourself on a) Friday night after a long work week or b) Sunday evening after a restful weekend? The answer that most people will give, of course, is “a”. And in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s on stressful days that many of us give in to temptation and choose unhealthy options. The connection between exhaustion and the consumption of junk food is not just a figment of your imagination.

And it is the reason why so many diets bite it in the midst of stressful situations, and why many resolutions derail in times of crisis.

How do we avoid breaking under stress? There are six simple rules.

1) Acknowledge the tension, don’t ignore it.

Usually in these situations, there’s an internal dialogue (albeit one of varying length) that goes something like this:

“I’m starving! I should go home and make a salad and finish off that leftover grilled chicken.”

“But it’s been such a long day. I don’t feel like cooking.” [Walks by popular spot for Chinese takeout] “Plus, beef lo mein sounds amazing right now.”

“Yes, yes it does, but you really need to finish those vegetables before they go bad, plus, they’ll be good with some dijon vinaigrette!”

“Not as good as those delicious noodles with all that tender beef.”

“Hello, remember the no carbs resolution? And the eat vegetables every day one, too? You’ve been doing so well!”

“Exactly, I’ve been so good! I can have this one treat…”

And so the battle is lost. This is the push-pull relationship between reason (eat well!) and impulse (eat that right now!). And here’s the reason we make bad decisions: we use our self-control every time we force ourselves to make the good, reasonable decision, and that self-control, like other human capacities, is limited.

2) Call it what it is: ego-depletion.

Eventually, when we’ve said “no” to enough yummy food, drinks, potential purchases, and forced ourselves to do enough unwanted chores, we find ourselves in a state called ego-depletion, where we don’t have any more energy to make good decisions. So–back to our earlier question–when you contemplate your Friday versus Sunday night selves, which one is more depleted? Obviously, the former.

You may call this condition by other names (stressed, exhausted, worn out, etc.) but depletion is the psychological sum of these feelings, of all the decisions you made that led to that moment. The decision to get up early instead of sleeping in, the decision to skip pastries every day on the way to work, the decision to stay at the office late to finish a project instead of leaving it for the next day (even though the boss was gone!), the decision not to skip the gym on the way home, and so on, and so forth. Because when you think about it, you’re not actually too tired to choose something healthy for dinner (after all, you can just as easily order soup and sautéed greens instead of beef lo mein and an order of fried gyoza), you’re simply out of will power to make that decision.

3) Understand ego-depletion.

Enter Baba Shiv (a professor at Stanford University) and Sasha Fedorikhin (a professor at Indiana University) who examined the idea that people yield to temptation more readily when the part of the brain responsible for deliberative thinking has its figurative hands full.

In this seminal experiment, a group of participants gathered in a room and were told that they would be given a number to remember, and which they were to repeat to another experimenter in a room down the hall. Easy enough, right? Well, the ease of the task actually depended on which of the two experimental groups you were in. You see, people in group 1 were given a two-digit number to remember. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that the number is 62. People in group two, however, were given a seven-digit number to remember, 3074581. Got that memorized? Okay!

Now here’s the twist: half way to the second room, a young lady was waiting by a table upon which sat a bowl of colorful fresh fruit and slices of fudgy chocolate cake. She asked each participant to choose which snack they would like after completing their task in the next room, and gave them a small ticket corresponding to their choice. As Baba and Sasha suspected, people laboring under the strain of remembering 3074581 chose chocolate cake far more often than those who had only 62 to recall. As it turned out, those managing greater cognitive strain were less able to overturn their instinctive desires.


(Photo: PetitPlat)

This simple experiment doesn’t really show how ego-depletion works, but it does demonstrate that even a simple cognitive load can alter decisions that could potentially have an effect on our lives and health. So consider how much greater the impact of days and days of difficult decisions and greater cognitive loads would be.

4) Include and consider the moral implications.

Depletion doesn’t only affect our ability to make good decisions, it also makes it harder for us to make honest ones. In one experiment that tested the relationship between depletion and honesty, my colleagues and I split participants into two groups, and had them complete something called a Stroop task, which is a simple task requiring only that the participant name aloud the color of the ink a word (which is itself a color) is written in. The task, however, has two forms: in the first, the color of the ink matches the word, called the “congruent” condition, in the second, the color of the ink differs from the word, called the “incongruent” condition. Go ahead and try both tasks yourself…

The congruent condition: color matches word.

The incongruent condition: color conflicts with word.

As you no doubt observed, naming the color in the incongruent version is far more difficult than in the congruent. Each time you repressed the word that popped instantly into your mind (the word itself) and forced yourself to name the color of the ink instead, you became slightly more depleted as a result of that repression.

As for the participants in our experiment, this was only the beginning. After they finished whichever task they were assigned to, we first offered them the opportunity to cheat. Participants were asked to take a short quiz on the history of Florida State University (where the experiment took place), for which they would be paid for the number of correct answers. They were asked to circle their answers on a sheet of paper, then transfer those answers to a bubble sheet. However, when participants sat down with the experimenter, they discovered she had run into a problem. “I’m sorry,” the experimenter would say with exasperation, “I’m almost out of bubble sheets! I only have one unmarked one left, and one that has the answers already marked.” She explained to participants that she did her best to erase the marks but that they’re still slightly visible. Annoyed with herself, she admits that she had hoped to give one more test today after that one, then asks a question: “Since you are the first of the last two participants of the day, you can choose which form you would like to use: the clean one or the premarked one.”

So what do you think participants did? Did they reason with themselves that they’d help the experimenter out and take the premarked sheet, and be fastidious about recording their accidents accurately? Or did they realize that this would tempt them to cheat, and leave the premarked sheet alone? Well, the answer largely depended on which Stroop task they had done: those who had struggled through the incongruent version chose the premarked sheet far more often than the unmarked. What this means is that depletion can cause us to put ourselves into compromising positions in the first place.

And what about the people, in either condition, who chose the premarked sheet? Once again, those who were depleted by the first task, once in a position to cheat, did so far more often than those who breezed through the congruent version of the task.

What this means is that when we become depleted, we’re not only more apt to make bad and/or dishonest choices, we’re also more likely to allow ourselves to be tempted to make them in the first place. Talk about double jeopardy.

5) Evade ego-depletion.

There’s a saying that nothing good happens after midnight, and arguably, depletion is behind this bit of folk wisdom. Unless you work the third shift, if you’re up after midnight it’s probably been a pretty long day for you, and at that point, you’re more likely to make sub-optimal decisions, as we’ve learned.

So how can we escape depletion?

A friend of mine named Dan Silverman once suggested an interesting approach during our time together at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which is a delightful place for researchers to take a year off to think, plan, and eat very well. Every day, after a rich lunch, we were plied with nigh-irresistible desserts: cheesecake, chocolate tortes, profiteroles, beignets—you name it. It was difficult for all of us, but especially for poor Dan, who was forever at the mercy of his sweet tooth.

It was daily dilemma for my friend. Dan, who was an economist with high cholesterol, wanted dessert. But he also understood that eating dessert every day was not a good decision. He contemplated this problem (along with his other academic interests), and concluded that when faced with temptation, a wise person should occasionally succumb. After all, by doing so, said person can keep him- or herself from becoming overly depleted, which will provide strength for whatever unexpected temptations lie in wait. Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.

In all seriousness though, we’ve all heard time and time again that if you restrict your diet too much, you’ll likely to go overboard and binge at some point. Well, it’s true. A crucial aspect of managing depletion and making good decisions is having ways to release stress and reset, and to plan for certain indulgences. In fact, I think one reason the Slow-Carb Diet seems to be so effective is because it advises dieters to take a day off (also called a “cheat” day–see item 4 above), which allows them to avoid becoming so deprived that they give up entirely. The key here is planning the indulgence rather than waiting until you have absolutely nothing left in the tank. It’s in the latter moments of desperation that you throw yourself on the couch with the whole pint of ice cream, not even making a pretense of portion control, and go to town while watching your favorite tv show.

Regardless of the indulgence, whether it’s a new pair of shoes, some “me time” where you turn off your phone, an ice cream sundae, or a night out—plan it ahead. While I don’t recommend daily dessert, this kind of release might help you face down challenges to your will power later.

6) Know Thyself.


(Image: AnEpicDay)

The reality of modern life is that we can’t always avoid depletion. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against it. Many people probably remember the G.I. Joe cartoon catch phrase: “Knowing is half the battle.” While this served in the context of PSAs of various stripes, it can help us here as well. Simply knowing you can become depleted, and moreover, knowing the kinds of decisions you might make as a result, makes you far better equipped to handle difficult situations when and as they arise.

About the author: Dan Ariely is also the author of several excellent books, including Predictably Irrational and, most recently, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Posted on: August 12, 2012.

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114 comments on “Understanding the Dangers of "Ego-Depletion"

  1. Agree 100% about your point about a big reason the slow carb diet has been so successful, is because it allows people to cheat. Everyone I’ve talked to who is on the diet, says that’s one of the main reasons they chose that diet over others. These same people failed over and over on other diets because they would break at some point, and when they did, just give up completely.

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    • Exactly. I’ve sorta been on Slow Carb for the past month, but now I’m being really strict during the week. And you know what? It doesn’t even feel like a diet at all thanks to that cheat day.

      Sure, my performance in CrossFit workouts may not be that great on Monday, depending upon my cheat on Saturday, but it’s not like I’m training to be in the Games anyway.

      In the end, this mindset simplifies everything. It allows me to focus on other things in my day.

      Like

    • Suggestions for increasing decision-making hitpoints:

      1. Make Fewer Decisions
      The fewer decisions you make, the slower you’ll hit decision fatigue. Avoid making unnecessary decisions, especially right before a major decision.

      2. Limit Your Choices
      The more elements you need to evaluate during a decision, the more taxing it becomes. Keep your options simple and reduce them whenever possible.

      3. Use Decision Rules
      Avoid detailed analysis for every decision. Use rules of thumb or rules you’ve defined in advance to make your decision.

      4. Create Habits
      Habits allow you to automate a decision so you avoid spending energy on it. Make your decision once, then create a habit to avoid making it repeatedly.

      5. Make Important Decisions First
      Order your decisions from most important to least important. Spend your limited reserves on the decisions that matter most. That way if you do hit decision fatigue, it’ll have less impact.

      6. Eat
      Decision reserves get replenished when glucose levels rise. Make sure to eat before major decisions to avoid low glucose levels. For a last minute decision, consider eating a sugary snack right before your decision.

      Also, recent research has pointed to increasing your serotonin levels as a way to make more rational decisions. It may also be helpful in alleviating ego depletion / decision fatigue. Check out the “The cheesy secret behind successful decision making” at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-cheesy-secret-behind-successful-decision-making-841419.html

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      • Trevor – thanks for a fantastic and very practical follow-up comment!

        Knowing about depletion is helpful, but pairing it with practical, implementable instructions/suggestions is even better.

        For those who seek more information on how to turn general suggestions into specific actions, i’d recommend Chip & Dan Heath’s book “Switch” which talks about the importance of being precise when we ask ourselves to change. An example from the book illustrates the difference between the directives “eat healthier” and “always choose 1% instead or whole milk.”

        http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0385528752

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      • Brilliant – thanks Tim and thank you Trevor – this has come at the right time for me to make some amazing decisions and then stick to then. You will read about it in the trade press (entertainment) in the New Year

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hey. I think we’re talking about increasing willpower here. I did some research a few months ago on this topic and I verified some things that I had experienced. Dual N-Back training (supposed to increase working memory) seemed to double my willpower. There is sparse evidence to support this but seems pretty valid. Check out http://lifehacker.com/5828159/how-you-can-boost-your-brains-willpower-with-a-simple-working-memory-exercise .

      I was using brain workshop.

      The problem with Dual N-Back training is that you’re memorizing random (read: unmeaningful) letters and locations. I think everyone craves meaningful stimulation. So I was delighted when I read the “Train Your Brain the Easy Way: Get Lost in a Good Story” section of this article: http://lifehacker.com/5895509/train-your-brain-for-monk+like-focus?tag=mindhacks

      So I switched over to reading for a while and then chess every night. My current “program” consists simply of counting to a thousand breaths every morning (my chosen form of meditation) during my morning walk. This is the easiest method I’ve found that produces favorable results.

      But the most favorable results I’ve had were when I was doing all of the above activities plus reviewing 100ish Italian cards in Anki every day. It was kind of unsustainable, but I felt like I was on Felix Felicis (that luck potion from Harry Potter.)

      I’d be curious to see what happens if you took a couple of days off from the internet. It could be that the constant barrage of near-random information on the internet has already built up your willpower, you just don’t know it because you’re using it all up dealing with all the information.

      Cheers! -Evan

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    • I would suggest increasing your endorphins. Each decision you make and annoyance you have during the day releases some endorphins. This is why if it’s been a really stressful day it can be hard to decide if you want Indian or Thai food. You can supplement with DL Phenylanine or even better just D Phenylanine which inhibits the destruction of endorphins in the brain.

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  2. Wow, am I the first???

    Great post, I’ve been trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend recently. Think I’ll just point her your way.

    I need to also remind myself of it. Before I send myself upstairs for a gruelling all-nighter I should just chill out and get up early and fresh tomorrow.

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  3. I have long wondered this. Especially over the past few years I’ve realized that if I’m just doing mindless work that doesn’t require critical thinking that I can handle interuptions and jump from task to task. However, I find that when employees require a variety of different decisions from me, and those decisions require critical thinking, my brain starts to die out around 3:00 p.m.

    I’m going to find even more ways to avoid decisions during the day. Thanks!

    Eric

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  4. The word “depletion” reminds me of my high school night-long sessions with some online shooters, friends and headphones on. Quick parallel.

    When you already know the map (say, your habits or inclinations) you can plan how to use or save your ammo (ego or self-control “points”) to be BOTH a) ridiculously efficient in the regular battlefield (making important decisions) and b) ridiculously efficient in the endgame, when every bullet counts (having something left for unplanned situations). Hint: wasting 5 bullets when 3 is enough isn’t wise.

    It has also much in common with Tim’s theory of minimum effective dose. Stating which things in your daily plan are the most important ones for your life design and which are “oh well, also nice” can ease the decision when to be tough and when to eat the cookie :)

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  5. Cool post, and definitely fits into my life experience, especially with diet.

    Reading through the Stroop test brought up a couple questions in my mind:

    1 is there any known effect on a persons ability to do either test if they’ve done the pother test recently?

    2 I saw a documentary a fee years

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    • I would like to blame swype for that post. The documentary was about research using logic games to treat schizophrenia patients, stroop tests were part of the games and the effects had apparently been dramatic. They were able show changes in schizophrenic brain function on fmri. I have since seen very little info about thata, just wondering if Dr. Ariely had any info our experience on that research.

      Thanks

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  6. Interesting stuff. I think that as a corollary, all this helps in articulating exactly why the long working hours institutionally required in the corporate world simply make people sick and unhappy with themselves: as ego-depletion kicks in, they feel less capable to take the plunge and leave the 9 to 5 life, not only in terms of making the short-term, yet hard sacrifices that such a big move might entail, but also because their capacity for being honest with themselves about the miserable situation they are into diminishes, making them more vulnerable to to rationalizing their current lifestyle via cognitive dissonance.

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  7. Hi Dan Ariely, this question is for you…

    Are youuu really Dan Silverman? Hm??

    Sincerely,
    Peter B Smith

    PS- I read predictably irrational and I really think you stand out from many academic authors, and other authors in general. Tim Ferriss has a lot of authors with guest posts on this site and they tend to follow the pattern “I did X in a way that most people would never think of…and heres how I did it!” I think a post like yours, backed by research, is refreshing and enjoyable.

    Keep up the good writing!

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  8. Time and time again I’ve run into situations that show me my willpower is limited (mostly having to do with diet). Eventually I stopped fighting temptation, oddly enough I simultaneously stopped gaining weight. So thanks Tim! I shall feel no guilt at the occasional binge!

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  9. I like the term used for it. Thanks for sharing Dan!

    Tim, what is your list of things you’ve automated to not deplete yourself on a daily basis? Do you have cheat meals during the week? Is yes, under what condition do you decide to?

    I’ve been having problems with that last question – some weeks are a lot more stressful than others.

    Best,

    David

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  10. Another way to consider ego depletion is to think of a muscle. By exercising the ego, exerting more self control or by making progressive changes, we can build more discipline. We get used to doing what we know we should and it becomes easier. There are limits to this, but it’s another strategy to consider. Baumeister has some good stuff on ego depletion.

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    • Building discipline is possible, but difficult, and perhaps shouldn’t be the basis of so many people’s path to being their best self. Everyone wants to have more will-power, but I learned from Eben Pagan that this might actually be something we can never achieve. This is why it’s important to ‘win before you fight’, and establish the habits and opportunities to be healthy and proactive. I also think that thinking in terms of identity economics can help short-circuit the rationalization process: if you care about being someone who doesn’t eat cake, it is easier to live up to your goal. “I am” trumps “I shouldn’t”.

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  11. Dan,

    Enjoyed the post. Especially the Someecards card exemplifying ego-depletion. I’ve watched this for years in the military where people eventually can’t take anymore and shut down. Your insight definitely illuminates things a bit more. Anyways, fantastic article. Looking forward to checking out The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

    -Chad

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  12. Thank you for the article – it was an interesting read and I agree with the author on the effects of decision making on our minds. However, I wonder whether there is not another factor at play when the stroop test takers decide whether to cheat or not. Since the incongruent condition test is more difficult than the congruent condition test, participants may be more inclined to cheat after taking the former due to lack of confidence in their abilities rather than because they are tired of the mental strain. Participants who have made no mistakes and are confident in their answers are more likely to feel that they do not need to see someone else’s answers in order to do well on the test.

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  13. Fascinating article, and I love how Tim opened the guest post. I think it’s important to take out the small, tedious takes and make them part of our routine. It’s easy for us to get in the trap of “oh I wonder what I can think of cooking up for dinner”- which in my case, goes on for an hour then ends up with cereal.

    To clarify, this article uses ego in a term that isn’t well defined. While I completely agree with the main point of the article, the use of the word ego was distracting. I’m not sure what the better word was, but this one took away from my focus of his main point and instead was looking at how he was defining ego. I recently came across a def. here (http://krishnapendyala.com/raising-awareness/meet-the-ego/) , but I doubt the two agree entirely.
    Anyways, we’re off to semantic warfare! I hope this doesn’t distract too much from the point of the article, but I wanted to caution the author on the use of the word “ego” – which often confuses more than it helps!

    Anyways, great guest post :)

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    • Semantic are important, extremely important. Language shapes our understanding of the world around us and of our experiances, so we better make sure we have the right word with the right meaning.

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  14. Wow, this article came at the right time for me.

    I’m currently discovering that not only is automating routine tasks important, but so too is not taking on lots of big things (dreamlines, etc) at once!

    I’m off to reread that brilliant post about letting opportunities pass and focusing on what’s most important.

    Thanks for sharing this stuff with us, Tim. It’s made my life way more awesome!

    Like