OK Kids! Today on Mister Science, we'll be discussing a highly entertaining bit of psychology research. The paper in question is "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" (by R. Baumeister, E. Bratslsavky, M. Muraven, and D. Tice, Journal of Social Psychology 74 (1998)). See also "Ego Depletion" Wikipedia entry here.
The conclusion of the paper is that the active self -- the ego, or whatever it is, that controls the self -- is, well, "a limited resource." Or, as the authors put it, "very limited." "Surprisingly limited." (p. 1263).
Actually, it's so limited, you have almost no self-control. What self-control you do have will be quickly spent up (about five minutes), even on undemanding tasks (like not eating chocolate).
People forcing themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolates were way less able to keep doing frustrating puzzles. Choosing to make a speech about personal beliefs, suppressing laughter and emotion, forcing activity over passivity -- all of these rendered experiment subjects less likely to persist in making themselves do stuff.
This casts serious doubt on any life strategy that involves "just getting your act together." You're not going to wake up one morning and become one of those people who eats egg whites and all-bran for breakfast, drinks only water, saves for retirement, and goes to bed early.
Maybe you'll do a few of those things, but you won't do them all. Indeed, it seems the more you do some the less you do the others. Even if you do decide that two marshmallows in twenty minutes are better than one now, you'll only be able to hold out so many times (see previous post here).
When I first read this paper I thought, "holy shit." You mean it's not just me? I was kind of excited to think that everyone had the problem of only being able to get about half of life together at any given time.
Then I thought, "Those afternoon advice shows had better get with the program." Oprah and Dr. Phil usually advise people to improve their self-control by valuing themselves more. I could never get this: I have a pretty high sense of self-worth, but it doesn't stop me from eating muffins and junk food and running up my credit card balance. Why would it?
If these guys are right, it would make more sense to advise people to move their self-control around.
One of the authors (R. Baumeister) has a new paper, which I found by googling the obvious "ego replenishment." There he says the self replenishes through rest and "positive affect," which I think is just psychology-speak for "happiness." This seems plausible enough, though it does give you a chicken-and-egg feeling: if you're miserable over your lack of self-control, you've got yourself in a real difficulty.
He also says some people can learn increased self-control through daily exercises. Which brings to mind a lot of wise-ass questions. If you have no self-control, how are supposed to practice daily exercises?
Maybe someone should set up a service: "Ego Replenishment: More Active Self for Less!" You could pay them to kidnap you and just force you to practice your self-control, to increase your daily ego supply. "More please! More of Me!"