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. This is similar to a lecture a neuroscientist was giving at my local Hacker Space.
    They did a study where you were split into two large group and activitly participated in the discussion. Then they broke up into groups of two individuals. They were all taken aside individually and told one of two things.
    1. You did great, everyone wants to be with you but we just had to pair you with someone at random.
    2. You did not so great, everyone want to be with someone else but we just had to pair you with someone at random

    They then places a plate of Chocolate Chips Cookies next to the pairs.
    The people who were told the 2. “no one likes you” statement ate a MUCH greater proportion of the cookies then the people who were told the 1. “everyone likes you”

    Side note. Chocolate Chip Cookies are are almost the perfect ego depletion food. Why?

    1. Chocolate
    2. Sweet smelling
    3. Happy childhood memories
    4. Carbs
    5. You KNOW you should not have them.

    Therefore the longer you are around Chocolate Chip Cookies the lower your will power gets. . . RUNNNN AWAYYYYYY

    Food for thought

    Like

  2. Tim,
    I realize that that I’m a mere peasant compared to you but I would really appreciate the opportunity to run an idea by you. I don’t want to post it on here for sake of intellectual theft. I don’t need to speak to you personally. All I need is a simple “that’s the worst idea on the face of the earth” or “I think that idea has promise.” I respect your position and privacy so it can be an extemely brief email discussion. I also respect your thoughts and advice and have been reading your material for a while now. Your book completely changes my view on work and life in general. Respectfully submitted, Joseph—Georgia

    Like

  3. What about the effect of not having enough sleep on decision-making? I thought that would be worth mentioning. I believe you limit your decision-making hit points when you’re under slept. Also the effect of stress hormones on decision-making has been written about a lot. If you’re flooded with that cortisol garbage, you’re decision-making hit points deplete quicker. Just a few thoughts i guess, also theres a good book on it called “Think Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman :)

    Like

  4. Wow. This is SO TRUE! Talk about yo-yo dieting and all the other effects of cold turkey dieting. It seems that in my case, I LOVE to over eat – just feels good to me. So what I do is I over eat veggies and egg whites in the morning, holding me off the rest of the day.

    I wonder how this effects the sex life too? Im sure that would be an interesting study.

    Like

  5. I recommended a book to you on a Facebook reply Tim – it’s called Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength. It discusses this in great detail – the concept that self-control is finite and that building good habits allows you to not use up so much of that willpower reserve, and save it for other areas of your life. It’s the most compelling book I’ve read all year and goes hand in hand with the principles you teach. You must check it out, I’ll check out this author as well, such an interesting topic.

    Like

  6. Yeah but I thought you want to stop feeding your EGO and start to feed your true inner self who actually hates the EGO version of you?

    When we are most focus we don’t have an oversized EGO right? Or am I missing something?

    Like

  7. Amazing change of perspective every time! We WILL meet you. We’re in San Antonio. Let us know when to make the meal reservations. à bientôt!

    Like

  8. The one thing I want to see from a diet is something that I can prepare quickly and that I can sustain. I don’t want to do it for 6 weeks then revert back. I want to pick a size I want to be and stay and stick to it.

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    • What I did all through college and to this day is use a slow-cooker, take 5-10 minutes to prepare a big batch of healthy food, cook it while I was asleep, and then I have enough meals to last me a couple days. That’s my first recommendation to people looking to eat healthier in a hurry. Since you can make just about any type of dish, you’ll probably find some good recipes you’d enjoy that take less than 10 minutes to prepare.

      Like

  9. LOVED THIS POST!!! Explained to me why after a long week of work where I feel I have been overwhelmed with so many decisions I’m must more open to stuffing myself and overeating. Sometimes I rationalize and tell myself “I deserve” this junk food and binging overeating.

    My action item from this post is to make the small decisions before hand so that when I am faced with the simple decisions, such as what I eat for breakfast, it has already been planned. This will save my decision making willpower I need for much bigger and more difficult decisions.

    Like

  10. Hi,
    I’ ve just bought your book and started to read and I have a problem becouse in my town there is no one place where I can check how much fat is in my body ;( can I try whitout it ?

    Like

    • I doubt very much that the purpose or application of this post mani intended to rationalizing the manipulation of long term relationships.

      Like

  11. That is one of my favorite someecards :).

    I think this article is good, but really misses a big part, which some commenters have already brought up: how to increase one’s total reservoir.

    Hypothesis – What if it is exactly when we are feeling most depleted that pushing ourselves to focus causes the most growth in mental reserves/willpower/hitpoints? Perhaps it is similar to working out, where the last bit of effort to the point of failure is the most important?

    “Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.”

    If reserves can be grown, then the above seems like a bad decision…maybe he should have decided to give in 4 days a week for a month, then 3, etc…?

    Just my thoughts.

    -JC

    Like

  12. Tim Ferriss make a trip to India. Your blogs are so informative and I use many of your advise from Slow Carb Diet to Entrepreneurship. I’ve just completed MBA and looking for a job but your blogs makes me think I should follow my dreams of public speaking and also being an entrepreneur (make my ideas work for real). You’re my favorite writer, fitness guru, travel guide, break-dancer & mentor all rolled in one. My favorite writers are Shakespeare and Dale Carnegie too but they couldn’t dance like you…Come to India…so wanna listen to you live.

    Like

  13. Hello,
    I have read the book by Timothy Ferriss: The 4-hour workweek. And I think it is pure gold!
    I wanted to ask you a question: It would be good idea to ask Brickwork India I did a Google Adwords (PPC)? I have done some work Brickwork India Marketing online to any of you?
    intersa me your opinion.

    Thanks for your time,
    regards,

    Jose Andres

    Like

  14. Genuinely very interesting.

    Giving in to temptation can be exactly what you need to acheive goals.

    Look at things like the cyclic ketogenic diet, which I have followed on numerous occassions, without the cheat days (recarb) it just wouldn’t work!

    Like

  15. This article explains a lot. I always wondered why I’d make such stupid decisions on uni placement, work etc from about 3pm onwards, even though I knew they were consciously bad in hindsight when I looked back on them the next morning. And why at work, I’d dread the 5pm-7pm time slot, when I just KNEW I’d do something stupid that would annoy the boss, and I’d just try to keep my head down and hang in there.

    Also why I always knew it was a BAD idea to go on a date, straight after a long day at work..I’d always end up sleeping with the girl who was no good, or friend zoning the one I liked, and uppercut myself later :p

    and why, if i don’t get into bed by 11pm, I find it impossible to ‘force myself’ to go to sleep before midnight, and about that time I start watching p*rn and won’t have the willpower to stop until 2am…oh crap its 1150…I know how tonight’s going to end :-O

    Like

  16. Hey Tim,

    I really love your article. I am trying to establish the habit of 1 hour of meditation daily at the moment. I think its tough because my ego does get depleted due to the length of the session from time to time. On those low days I just do 10 or twenty minutes, gives me time to go the full length the next days.

    Cheers,

    Brandon

    Like

  17. Great article, I had never given much thought to how the process of giving into temptation works. I think you may have just caused a quantum shift in my thinking in everything from eating to working and living…

    Like

  18. Hey Tim, awesome post. I have been curious as to what you would say was your biggest accomplishment prior to being and entrepreneur and best-selling author?
    Also, what kind of tea do you drink before you start your writing process??

    Like

  19. Thanks Tim, great article, excellent picture to start the post off – it’ll take some digesting to take it all in, but am working on it. Hopefully it’ll help with my stress factors.

    Like

  20. This topic is interesting, it certainly makes you think about environment control (inner and outer) and its correlation to accurate decision making. In other words, how having a mess or a workplace and a stressful work environment can lead to poor decisions; Interesting indeed. I is also a useful tool to analyze and define optimal times for decision making (80/20), and maybe set a time of the day or a day of the week to make business or life decisions.

    Also, I have been following the Slow Carb Diet for a couple of months now, and its helping. I think that “cheat day” is a useful tool that can be extrapolated to other things as well, included decision making. Interesting concept.

    Cheers man, saludos!

    PS Currently reading the extended version of the 4HWW, its great!

    Like

  21. Hey Tim,
    I was thinking about this topic after dicussing it with my girlfriend, and I came to realize there are several things that can impact personal performance along the lines of “ego-depletion” that we can conciously do to multiply productivity (not just in volume, but in value). Among several examples, I think using a secondary monitor is one of that has helped me a lot (a 20” simple LCD in my case). Not having to toggle between running applications is like climbing a mountain without a backpack, you feel lighter and more natural. A secondary monitor (for certain multi-window tasks like research based writing, wordpress site updates, video editing, etc. I am against “multi-tasking” but sometimes having multiple applications open at the same time is inevitable) makes my mind feel more relaxed in a similar way the “Word/color” test included in the article was easier to complete when the words matched the color. It makes it easier for me to get into a “flow” state. I am convinced this is an 80/20 area of personal efectiveness that deserves exploring (hint, that would be a great post).

    My whole point is, as with most things, mental energy (or mental stress) can also be productively analyzed using the 80/20 principle in apparently unquantifiable aspects such as “potential creative mental energy”.

    PS Are you the dude “who studies japanese” in David Koch´s book (The 80/20 principle)? I bet you are!

    Like

  22. Wow, this was such an interesting read!

    Makes TOTAL sense though!

    I’ve been limiting the stress around here for the last few weeks and basically just being conscious of the moment I’m actually in (not worrying about the gym, work and commitments etc) and I gotta tell ya, the difference has been pretty incredible!

    Like

  23. This is a great article. It gave me an insight on what ego-depletion means. It’s really hard to make decisions and at times it can be very stressful. Dieting is a very challenging thing to do especially when a person can easily be tempted. I am also struggling to lose weight so I think I’ll try this slow carb diet. Stress is one of the reasons why we tend to overeat as food can be very comforting. so I think this article is really nice.

    Like

  24. Well at my part I do get that alot of ego-depletions at home as well. Or at work and this may vary to a persons personality sometimes. But at my part I can be very considerate but sometimes if its too much I would object. For example taking turns in doing the chores could be a very common thing. If one person watches TV all day and the other does the chores and this keeps going till the end of the week this gotta change already. But to some people doing nothing and relaxing is better than working so it creates a feud. So to avoid this as much as possible people should create an understanding to one another.

    Like

  25. Hi, I’ve stumbled across this post and did my best to try and understand it all.
    Is this article available in German anywhere? Also have there any test been done with people who suffer from mental illness? How would this work with a person who has a generalized anxiety disorder, or severe depression, or say ADHD? Or someone who suffers from insomnia? What about dyslexics?

    Like

  26. Great article – all of Ariely’s work is a great read. Check out The Power of Habit by Duhigg. He covers this topic as well, but also does a fabulous job of dissecting the connection between reward and trigger (what he calls “cue”). Once you know your current reward you can “rewire” your routine to have a better routine.
    It’s a sort-of mechanical look at how to rewire any habit that doesn’t serve you. Well worth the read (start with the appendices about how he kicked his afternoon cookie habit).

    Like

  27. I’d like to say just how popular this blog is, as can be seen by the comments regularly being posted.
    It’s well worth following in order to understand other peoples thoughyts on the subject of stress.

    Like

  28. This blog post is actually refreshing. It made me remember the time when I did really bad in decision making. What I did prior to that were all about forcing myself to finish my work that it made me not sleep and eat. Hence, the bad decision. It screwed up my relationship with my peers and friends. When I realized how bad I did, I did my best to make it right, but it just ended up adding to the stress. And so, I took a little break from everything, and when I came back, I was able to make things better. And I did better! This post gave more insight into the topic, and might as well just take the advice. Thanks!

    Like

  29. I’m 54 testosterone is 325. I want raise it to 800 which is the high norm. Will this program do this for me and how long will it take? Thanks.

    Like

  30. Hi Fellow Free People,

    Does anyone remember exactly where Tim’s writing or link about the issue of everyone being a slave, even a king being a slave to a servant girl, etc., because that really hit home with me? I realized I had fallen into my own kind of slavery down here in Corpus Christi, Texas. I am ready to break free now that I have ID’d the problem. Thanks Tim and Stoics for wising me up before I die. Can’t be free if you don’t know you are a slave. I am taking a spiritual approach to riches doing something called Millionaire Yoga by Dr Baskaran Pillai, formerly Dattatreya Siva Baba on YouTube and it has cleared my mind right up. A clear mind is a foundation of wealth creation and there are secrets of wealth creation only the very few ever heard of outside the Himalayas or in old Tibet. Enough about me. If you want to talk about implementing Tim’s ideas somehow, then I can be emailed at munroekyle@yahoo.com I am ready to listen and help if I can. Also on Twitter at BRZEE_BRZEE I am afraid most people block their own money by blaming how it comes, according to Dr Pillai who has studied the matter deeply. Kyle

    Like

  31. An enlightening article. I recently wrote a blog in which I emphasised the importance of congruence with ones inner beliefs when defining and working on personal goals, so I particularly liked the section on the Stroop test. What I wrote was based more on my own intuition and personal belief, and it is good to see it vindicated by scientific research.

    Like

  32. Hey Tim – Any chance you can change the E-Card at the top of this post so I can share this blog post with some elementary school students?

    Like