In his research, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister has found that people exhibit less self-control after they make decisions.
control. Conversely, after exerting self-control, decision-making shifts toward
simpler and easier processes. That can
lead people to make poorer decisions, or
to avoid making choices at all.
I was a bit surprised that decision-making depleted the same resource as
self-control. Intuitively it did not seem
right, but on paper the hypothesis was
a plausible extension. So we tested it,
and have now demonstrated the effect
repeatedly. Once we realized that the same
resource is used for both self-regulation
and decision-making, it became necessary
to look for a broader framework. I think
this common process is the psychological
reality behind the folk notion of free will.
Can you walk us through a typical
example of willpower depletion?
A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for
breakfast, but after a long day of making
difficult decisions at work, he has a
much harder time resisting that piece of
cake for dessert. Another example might
be losing your temper. Normally, you
refrain from responding negatively to
unpleasant things your romantic partner
says. But if one day you’re especially
depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet
a stressful work deadline — and the
person says precisely the wrong thing,
you erupt and say the words you would
have stifled if your self-control strength
was at full capacity.
What do you call this process?
My collaborators and I use the term
“ego depletion” to refer to the state of
depleted willpower. Initially, we called
it “regulatory depletion” because the
first findings focused purely on acts of
self-regulation. When it emerged that
the same resource was also used for
decision-making, we wanted a broader
term that would suggest some core
aspect of the self was depleted. We
borrowed the term “ego” from Freudian
theory because Freud had spoken about
the self as being partly composed of
energy and of processes involving energy.
How common are ego-depleting
Some people imagine that self-control or
willpower is something you only use once
in a while, such as when you are tempted
to do something wrong. The opposite is
true. Research indicates that the average
person spends three to four hours a
day resisting desires. Plus, self-control
is used for other things as well, such
as controlling thoughts and emotions,
regulating task performance and making
decisions. So most people use their
willpower many times a day, all day.