If you’ve ever tried finding tips
on how to have more willpower.
You may have heard the term ego depletion before.
This refers to the idea that
you only have a limited amount of willpower.
So, each time you use it,
eg when resisting junk food
or choosing not to procrastinate,
you’re draining some of it away,
hence why people turn into couch potatoes
after a long day’s work.
Now, as evidence,
in one groundbreaking study,
participants had to either resist eating radishes,
which presumably no one had problems with,
or resist eating chocolate,
a much more draining task.
Afterwards, both groups were given an unsolvable problem.
those who had their willpowers depleted
by resisting chocolate
gave up twice as fast as those
who simply had to resist radishes.
This paper went on to become
one of the most established studies in psychology.
Therefore, if ego depletion is a thing,
then the trick is:
not to load on too many goals at once.
Otherwise, if you’re trying to eat healthy,
stop smoking and be more social all at once,
you’ll quickly run out of willpower
and end up home alone with a smoke in one hand
and popcorn in the other.
Okay, so far, everything seems good.
Yet, alarmingly the research behind this simple effect
is amazingly complex.
The biggest question is:
does this effect actually exist,
or are all these self-help advice wrong?
As you’ll see, when it comes to scientific journalism,
a lot of the mainstream articles
only brush the surface of what’s going on.
To start off,
let’s examine this meta analysis.
It has over 198 independent tests of ego depletion
and includes over 10,000 participants,
so it seems pretty trustworthy.
What did it reveal?
Well, almost all the studies found evidence for ego depletion,
and overall, this phenomenon has a moderate effect on us.
So, what’s the problem?
Unfortunately there could be publication bias at play,
perhaps there are more studies which failed to show the effects of ego depletion
but they just haven’t been published.
In fact, recently we’re seeing more and more studies
that show no findings,
For example,these two studies,
both of which included about 200 participants,
tried following the classic design for ego depletion
deplete the participants willpower
and then measure their performance on an effortful task afterwards.
Now you’d expect there to be worse performance
on the later task.
Yet, both studies found no evidence for ego depletion.
Furthermore, more meta analysis have since come out,
which try to factor out the publication bias
from the final analysis.
Regardless of which statistical method used,
All of them suggests that
we’ve been overestimating the strength of ego depletion.
Some conclude ego depletion isn’t even real.
So, to think that publication bias could inflate a result,
that much is alarming.
Now there’s another layer of complexity on top of all these,
There’s recently been evidence
that your beliefs about willpower
actually influence the effect of ego depletion.
For example, if you believe that willpower is limited,
perhaps you use that as an excuse
and slack off after you finish your task.
But, if you believe that willpower is unlimited,
perhaps you’ll just keep powering on.
In one study, participants were given a bias questionnaire.
Some read statements like
working on a strenuous task can make you feel tired,
while others read statements like
working on a strenuous task can
make you feel energized for further challenges.
Surprisingly, if you read about limited willpower,
you’d become ego depleted on the second task.
But if you read about unlimited willpower,
you wouldn’t show any signs of ego depletion.
So, is all this talk about ego depletion
actually creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Furthermore, if you want more long-term evidence of this,
this paper measured a hundred and fifty students
over a five-week period.
Now, compared to students who believe that willpower was limited,
those who believe that willpower was unlimited procrastinated less.
They also achieved a higher GPA,
importantly, this effect only happened for students
who are under a heavy workload.
So would it be more empowering
to tell everyone that our willpower is unlimited?
And ultimately does this mean ego depletion doesn’t really exist?
For now, it’s best not to base any life hacks
on ego depletion.
But the point is,
for a lot of pop science, the actual research behind it
isn’t really that solid.
Therefore, next time you’re relying on scientific advice,
take a little time to read the literature behind it,
you may find that it’s completely wrong.