Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals.
If you exert willpower early in the day, like fighting the urge to yell at a person, you won’t have any leftover later for, say, resisting the temptation to have ice cream for dinner. It turns out that, all of that is one big myth.
In 1998, husband-and-wife psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice performed a study into self-control. They placed fresh-baked cookies next to a bowl of radishes, then asked half of a group of volunteers to sit in the room unattended. Half of the volunteers were told to eat only the radishes, and half were allowed to eat the cookies.
Next, they were given a puzzle to solve, which were unsolvable. The people who ate the radishes quit faster than those who ate cookies, suggesting that the willpower it took to not eat the cookies was no longer available to stick it out on the puzzle task.
More than a decade and a half later, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found something worrying. Most of the studies of ego depletion with small sample sizes showed huge effects when you should expect to find at least a few with no effects.
That pointed to publication bias, or the tendency for journals to only publish studies that show a relationship between two things — few people want to read a study that says two things don’t have anything to do with each other, even if that study is important. So psychologist Martin Hagger spearheaded an effort to re-do the original study in a bunch of different labs. The results? “We found that the ego-depletion effect was roughly zero,” Hagger told LiveScience.
Michael Inzlict at the University of Toronto says that you can think of self-control more as something driven by motivation than by something that runs out — that is, it’s the foot on the gas pedal, not the fuel in the tank.
Another theory deals with the way people frame willpower. A Stanford study showed that if people thought willpower was a limited resource, they showed signs of so-called ego depletion. But if they didn’t think willpower was finite, they showed no such effect.
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