Saving Ego Depletion! Defending and Explaining Self-Control’s Apparent Limits

Monday, November 23, 2015

Michael Inzlicht

University of Toronto

Self-control refers to the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions, thus enabling behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment. According to the resource model of self-control, overriding one’s predominant response tendencies consumes and temporarily depletes a limited inner resource and undermines subsequent attempts at control in a state known as “ego depletion.” Nearly 200 separate studies are consistent with the resource model, with repeated demonstrations of effortful control at Time 1 reducing performance on subsequent self-control tasks at Time 2. Despite this apparent robust support, ego depletion is being challenged on two fronts. First is the very serious claim that ego depletion is not replicable, that past support has benefited from publication bias and perhaps the use of questionable research practices. Second is the claim that the resource model is internally inconsistent, with many studies directly contradicting the claim of a physical resource that is depleted or with the claim that self-control failures are due to a lack of capacity. Addressing the first claim, I provide statistical evidence that the ego depletion effect is indeed robust, with self-control indeed having a refractory period; I also detail how claims of non-robustness only arise from the use of statistical techniques that are themselves biased and imprecise. Addressing the second claim, I advance an alternative to the resource model, suggesting that self-control is not dependent on limited resources. Rather self-control failures reflect the motivated switching of task priorities as people strive to strike an optimal balance between engaging cognitive labor to pursue “have-to” goals versus preferring cognitive leisure in the pursuit of “want-to” goals.


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