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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“Willpower depletion” & you

June 13, 2012 – Most of us seem prone to distraction, which suggests a problem with summoning “willpower”. This appears to be “social” – part of “fitting in”. To make things worse, it seems that advertisers and the media conspire to have us associating distraction with… pleasure.

We can’t think about this stuff without metaphor. We could talk about “real” things: serotonin, dopamine, etc – but we’d have to use metaphor eventually. So, distraction appears outside us, but then becomes “internalised” and “self-reinforcing”. After a busy, distracting day, we try to relax by distracting ourselves further (eg by watching TV news). Eventually our own minds become distracting.

It might seem like a problem. But then we start thinking in terms of mental “discipline”, “vigilance”, “self-denial”, etc – “solutions”. Or we might invoke management jargon, with its emphasis on “control”, “efficiency”, “planning”. Vigilance! Regimen! Abstention! It sounds like an anal-retentive’s lexicon. Surely there’s another way..?

Luckily, the blossoming fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are not ignoring “willpower”. On the contrary, they’re producing truckloads of fascinating research – including new(ish) ways to think about it…

“Self-control” & “ego depletion”

The term “ego depletion” seems to have taken off, having appeared in thousands of scientific papers. Its popularity in the field seems due to its usefulness in “explaining” a wide assortment of behaviours reflecting poor “self-control”.

The basic idea is a sort of energy model (or metaphor) of “self”. The “energy” gets depleted and needs to be replenished, and this determines our available “willpower”. The researcher who coined the phrase “ego depletion” says he used the term “ego” as a kind of homage to Freud’s insights regarding the old “libido” energy-model of self.

One of the early studies on ego depletion (the ‘Radish & Chocolate’ experiment) raised the question: Why would the act of resisting chocolate-chip cookies lead to poor perseverance in trying to solve a geometry puzzle? (The experiment had compared the geometry-solving perseverance of a group of tempted radish-eating students to that of both cookie-eating and hungry – but untempted – students).

One of the authors of the study, Roy Baumeister (with co-author John Tierney), commented:

The old folk wisdom about willpower appeared to be correct after all, unlike the newer and fancier psychological theories of the self. Willpower looked like much more than a metaphor. It seemed to be like a muscle that could be fatigued through use. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

Of course, in thinking about it as a “power”, or as “like a muscle”, we’re still in the realm of conceptual metaphor. Baumeister later uses the metaphor of a willpower “stock”, “supply” “reservoir” and “source of energy”:

1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over. There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day. You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

If you don’t yet see the significance here of metaphor, consider that while the “fatigued muscle” and “drained reservoir” metaphors might both be useful ways to think about these aspects of “self”, muscles behave very differently from reservoirs. We can’t think about “self-control” without metaphor, and it’s fine to use multiple, diverse metaphors (we do it all the time without noticing), but each conceptual metaphor has its own set of inferences. You can’t strengthen a reservoir through exercise, although you can fill it back to its original level.

No unpleasantness

‘Ego depletion’ has been described by researchers as like an illness with no symptoms – a condition which doesn’t “feel” like anything. But it seems there are tell-tale signs, the most obvious being a tendency to react (emotionally) more strongly to all sorts of things, plus intensified desires and appetites. As Baumeister & Tierney put it, “Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever”.

You may have noticed, for example, that you get irritable when you’re trying to quit some habitual/addictive behaviour. Or you find yourself craving junk food. Or perhaps you just get disheartened and depressed more easily than usual. In the ego-depletion thesis, these behaviours/states result from placing demands on your ‘stock’ of willpower – the same stock which is used for controlling thoughts, emotions and other “impulses”. The increased irritation (or craving or other reaction) is often the very thing which causes you to abandon your attempt (to quit smoking, or whatever is demanding more ‘willpower’ than usual).

People usually associate willpower with so-called “impulse control” (the ability to resist temptations such as alcohol, tobacco and chocolate) or “performance control” (focusing your attention, persevering with a task, etc), but not with control of thoughts and emotions.

We tend to use “computational” metaphors for “rational thought” – we conceive of thinking as being about information processing rather than “energy resources”. And yet controlled thinking (eg trying to solve a difficult geometry puzzle) drains your ‘willpower’ reservoir, according to the scientific research on ego-depletion. How is this relevant to anything? Well, while we might make allowances for poor “performance” when we feel completely “drained” (ie exhausted), we probably don’t imagine that fluctuations in our “energy levels” affect how we “rationally” think.

“Decision fatigue”

Consider the study (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’) which found that judges were more likely to be lenient in granting parole if they’d just had a snack break. The judges themselves weren’t aware that pausing for a sandwich affected their “rational” decision-making processes.

The slightly “drained” pre-snack judges tended to go for the less risky option (keeping the prisoners locked up) – compared to their decisions made after refreshments. As the study’s authors (Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso) write:

We have presented evidence suggesting that when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment. (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’)

Or, in the words of Baumeister & Tierney, “Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions”.

Of course, decisions on more important matters, such as going to war, are taken on a much more “rational” basis – they don’t depend on snacks. Of course. (See Oliver Stone’s film, W., for more details…).

Boost Your Willpower!

This is about you. Want to give up smoking, increase your concentration? Wouldn’t the ladies be more impressed if you had a larger attention span? Are you wasting your days on Twitter? And what about managing your anger and irritation more effectively? Do you think people haven’t noticed how argu-mental you seem at times?

It’s all about this “ego depletion” thing. And did you know that, according to this theory, activities such as meditation can strengthen your willpower? I’ll try to explain, but right now there’s a car alarm going off outside, and I can’t concentrate. Those noisy bastards, no consideration for others… who’d want to steal their piece-of-shit car anyway… [etc]

(To be continued…)

Written by NewsFrames

June 12, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Metaphor, Willpower

2 Responses

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  1. I didn’t think I had the mental energy to leave a comment, but I checked my dipstick, and turns out I’ve still a quarter tank of reserve.

    Remind me to remind my lawyer to keep talking until the judge takes his usual lunch break. I think I’m gonna need all the extraneous and extrajudicial factors I can muster in order to skate.

    I see the term “delayed gratification” quite a lot on this side of the pond. It’s used to describe why some kids get better grades in school, why some people are able to manage their credit better than others, and…something having to do with premature ejaculation, which I confess I did not understand.

    But what I like about the term is that it implies gratification is looming; I assume an exhaustion of will power will tend to rev up (???) the motors and speed premature gratification, putting the kibosh on self-control, the day turning out well, or just snapping one’s streak.

    It’s rough when you’re all used up, ya know?


    June 23, 2012 at 6:58 am

    • Yep, I kept seeing this “immediate vs delayed gratification” thing turn up in my readings on the topic. Kelly McGonigal writes: “A brain that could bias your decisions toward immediate gratification when resources are scarce, but toward long-term investment when resources are plenty, would be a real asset in a world with an unpredictable food supply.” – this being a comment on a study which seemed to show that people whose blood-sugar levels were increasing (due to being given a sugary drink) were more likely to “delay gratification” (in the study, this meant more likely to choose a reward of $450 in a month’s time over receiving $120 tomorrow).


      June 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

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