Ego Depletion

ego depletion

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Ego depletion is associated with a performance breakdown or the loss of a personal resource because of any previous willful and effortful self-acts.

What Is Ego Depletion?

Ego Depletion refers to a self-regulation theory 1 Evans, D. R., Boggero, I. A., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2016). The Nature of Self-Regulatory Fatigue and “Ego Depletion”: Lessons From Physical Fatigue. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc20(4), 291–310. from psychology. It is a phenomenon when a person ends up using his/her available willpower on one task or work. That’s why he/she is unable to utilize the same amount of self-control on unrelated tasks. The low energy of mental activity causes impaired self-control, which can be considered a state of ego depletion.

According to research, willpower and self-control are somehow interlinked 2 Baumeister, R.  Is Willpower a Limited Resource? American Psychological Association (APA). . After using all your willpower, you reach a state of ego depletion and as a result, you cannot exert the required self-control when facing ensuing tasks. It is a critical topic of experimental social psychology. According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s conservation hypothesis 3 Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D.  elf-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation. CiteSeerX. , the partial explanation implies:

  • A condition when a person is completely unable to self-control
  • A condition when a person feels partly depleted but tries to reduce self-control efforts in order to avoid complete exhaustion.

American social psychologist Roy Baumeister 4 Baumeister RF. Ego depletion and self-regulation failure: a resource model of self-control. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2003 Feb;27(2):281-4. doi: 10.1097/01.ALC.0000060879.61384.A4. PMID: 12605077. suggested that willpower works like a muscle, the tasks that require self-control may weaken this muscle 5 Muraven M, Baumeister RF. Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychol Bull. 2000 Mar;126(2):247-59. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.247. PMID: 10748642. . It is considered to be a mechanism that plays a pivotal role in understanding the self-control process.

Experimental Evidence

According to the American social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s model 6 Baumeister RF, Tice DM, Vohs KD. The Strength Model of Self-Regulation: Conclusions From the Second Decade of Willpower Research. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2018 Mar;13(2):141-145. doi: 10.1177/1745691617716946. PMID: 29592652. , self-control can be fatigued and strengthened. The research suggests that the self-control muscle can cause ego depletion for unrelated tasks. Later a few future studies 7 BAUMEISTER, R. F. CiteSeerX. supported the self-control model.

A key experiment of Roy Baumeister 8 Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky,, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (n.d.). PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES. Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. and his colleagues supported the fact that the phenomenon had created effects in diverse situations. This experiment showed that the people who are capable of resisting the sweet tooth temptations are initially less able to persist on a frustrating puzzling task. This condition is attributed to a state of ego depletion. It presented the fact that ego depletion is not at all content-specific.

Another study 9 Muraven, M., & Slessareva, E. Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources. University at Albany – State University of New York.,%202003.pdf suggests that motivation plays a very important role in the concept of ego depletion. However, some recent studies 10 McGonigal, K. THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT. LieDM asociacijos virtuali mokymosi aplinka. have proved that the effect is less powerful than earlier believed.

Causes Of Ego Depletion

Causes Of Ego Depletion

Researchers 11 Jéquier E. Carbohydrates as a source of energy. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994 Mar;59(3 Suppl):682S-685S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/59.3.682S. PMID: 8116550. suggested that glucose is required for self-control as a specific form of energy. Glucose plays a pivotal role as a primary fuel 12 Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences36(10), 587–597. for the body. According to many experiments 13 Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., Brewer, L. E., & Schmeichel, B. J. Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More Than a Metaphor of Roy Baumeister, self-control depletion is related to a reduced level of glucose, and glucose consumption can replenish self-control performance. Other studies 14 Vadillo MA, Gold N, Osman M. The Bitter Truth About Sugar and Willpower: The Limited Evidential Value of the Glucose Model of Ego Depletion. Psychol Sci. 2016 Sep;27(9):1207-14. doi: 10.1177/0956797616654911. Epub 2016 Jul 11. PMID: 27485134. suggested that the effects can be reversed by only tasting sweet beverages, but not swallowing or consuming them.

Various types of physiological factors can affect ego depletion and often makes it difficult to regain willpower. Those factors include:

1. Low blood sugar

Reduced levels of blood sugar 15 Ampel, B. C., Muraven, M., & McNay, E. C. (2018). Mental Work Requires Physical Energy: Self-Control Is Neither Exception nor Exceptional. Frontiers in psychology9, 1005. can make it tougher to resist temptation.

2. Emotional Distress

Some research suggested when a person feels emotional distress 16 Wagner, D. D., & Heatherton, T. F. (2013). Self-regulatory depletion increases emotional reactivity in the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience8(4), 410–417. , him/her willpower will be depleted more quickly.

3. Hormonal impact

Another research 17 [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Premenstrual syndrome: Overview. [Updated 2017 Jun 15]. Available from: suggested that women have been found with less self-control when they experience their premenstrual syndrome. The reason behind this theory is that ovaries work harder during menstruation.

4. Fatigue

Studies 18 Evans, D. R., Boggero, I. A., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2016). The Nature of Self-Regulatory Fatigue and “Ego Depletion”: Lessons From Physical Fatigue. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc20(4), 291–310. have shown when a person assumes a task or situation to be emotionally taxing before working on it, he/she will become fatigued faster.

5. Choice

According to researches 19 Moller AC, Deci EL, Ryan RM. Choice and ego-depletion: the moderating role of autonomy. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2006 Aug;32(8):1024-36. doi: 10.1177/0146167206288008. Erratum in: Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014 Dec;40(12):1711. Erratum in: Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014 Dec;40(12):1711. PMID: 16861307. , self-control is highly dependent on self-made choices. If a person is forced to do a task, he/she will experience less self-control.

6. Age

Most ego-depletion 20 Dahm, T., Neshat-Doost, H. T., Golden, A. M., Horn, E., Hagger, M., & Dalgleish, T. (2011). Age shall not weary us: deleterious effects of self-regulation depletion are specific to younger adults. PloS one6(10), e26351. studies suggested that the younger generation may be less resistant to the phenomenon than the older people. These studies have shown that the particular area of the brain that is involved in self-control continues to develop until the mid-20s.

Read More About Aging Here

Manifestation Of Ego Depletion

This phenomenon can impact one’s behavior in different ways. It manifests in reduced performance in the second task when the person completes the depleting version of the first task.

1. Motivation and Beliefs

Ego depletion is shown to have self-regulation impairments. Beliefs in unlimited power and external motivation can temporarily buffer this effect. It can render a person immune to the situation. Researches 21 Vohs, M. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Schmeichel, B. J. (n.d.). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. CiteSeerX. have shown that these effects are limited to the cases of mild depletion. The effects of subjective beliefs and motivation can disappear by extensive depletion. Such an example of external motivation was once demonstrated by Boucher and Kofos 22 Yap, A. J., Mason, M. F., & Ames, D. R. (n.d.). The powerful size others down: The link between power and estimates of others’ size. in 2012.

2. Prosocial Behavior

The phenomenon influences prosocial behavior 23 Xu, H., Begue, L., & Bushman, B. J. Too fatigued to care: Ego depletion, guilt, and prosocial behavior. . Self-control affects the social interaction that is designed to help others. According to researches, people often feel guilty when others reflect on their behavior. These feelings of guilt make people behave in prosocial ways. This state of mind makes it tougher to experience guilt. According to additional research, people who have experienced ego depletion feel less guilty. This study showed that it has a direct impact on decreasing the ability to feel guilty.

3. Physical Fatigue

A person’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors are controlled by the self-regulation ability. The behaviors include mental and physical health, academic success, relationship quality that have a social outcome. The perceived level of fatigue 24 Vohs, K. D., Glass, B. D., Maddox, W. T., & Markman, B. (2010, October 4). Social Psychological and Personality Science. College of Liberal Arts | The University of Texas at Austin. influences a person’s task performance that requires self-regulation. This state is known as illusory fatigue. A perceived level of fatigue can hinder self-regulatory performance that is independent of the participant’s actual state of depletion.

Real-Life Implications Of Ego Depletion

When a person experiences the state of ego depletion, his/her ability to self-control can be implicated in different undesirable behaviors.

1. Performance

According to a 2016 research paper 25 Englert, C. (2016, March 2). The Strength Model of Self-Control in Sport and Exercise Psychology. CORE – Aggregating the world’s open access research papers. , a mental determination can be critical for athletic performance. This means that it tends to decline difficult tasks. A difficult cognitive task can hinder a competitive athlete’s performance. This experiment suggests that the effects have an important impact not only on cognitive tasks but also on physical tasks.

2. Guilt

Ego depletion can also be implicated in guilt. That feeling is considered to be necessary for adaptive human interaction. This feeling of guilt may lead to a person’s prosocial behavior. According to studies, it resists a person to experience the feeling of guilt.

Read More About Guilt Here

3. Dieting

Researchers 26 Hagger, M. S., Panetta, G., Leung, C. M., Wong, G. G., Wang, J. C., Chan, D. K., Keatley, D. A., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2013). Chronic inhibition, self-control and eating behavior: test of a ‘resource depletion’ model. PloS one8(10), e76888. have shown that non-dieters are less likely to experience ego depletion than chronic dieters. The reason is that chronic dieters utilize more willpower to control their food consumption, so they become more likely to lose self-control. Based on further research, it was found that the act of dieting is a kind of resource expenditure. The researchers revealed that the chronic dieters ate more ice cream than the non-dieters when given a chance after sitting far away from the desirable treat.

4. Decision Making

Studies 27 Wertenbroch, K., Vosgerau, J., & Bruyneel, S. Free Will, Temptation, and Self-Control: We must believe in free will, we have no choice (Isaac B. Singer). Wharton Faculty – Wharton Faculty Platform. showed that people who experience ego depletion issues generally make poor or impulsive decisions. The sheer number of choices may lead to such a condition. This impulsive behavior sometimes includes chronic alcohol consumption. It becomes more difficult to say no when self-control reaches exhausting self-control 28 BAUMEISTER, R. F. Ego Depletion and Self-Control Failure: An Energy Model of the Self’s Executive Function. CiteSeerX. .

Coping With Ego Depletion

Coping With Ego Depletion

Researchers 29 Duclos, R., Wan, E. W., & Jiang, Y. (2012, December 16). Effects of Social Exclusion on Financial Risk-Taking. American Psychological Association (APA). have found that it can affect a person’s success, motivation, social life, and performance. One can adapt the below-mentioned ways to prevent or reduce the effects of the drain on self-control or willpower.

1. Change vision towards life

Research has shown that the people who focus on the overall goal are less likely to experience ego depletion than people who only feel for the moment and are dependent on their self-perception.

2. Mood Improvement

A few studies suggested that a positive mood can be very beneficial for self-control. In such studies, ego-depleted participants who were in a good mood performed better than the non-ego-depleted participants.

3. Prioritize things in life

Researches 30 Eastwick, P. W., Harden, K. P., Shukusky, J. A., Morgan, T. A., & Joel, S. (2017, March 2). Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. have shown that self-confirmation has a direct impact on self-regulation. Self-affirmation 31 Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience11(4), 621–629. is considered as the thought that boosts self-integrity. When a person feels stressed, he/she should remind himself/herself of the things that are important for them.

4. Make sleep a priority

Sleep is very important as it regenerates the self-control and mental energy that one needs throughout the day. Self-control can be highly impacted by a lack of sleep 32 Pilcher, J. J., Morris, D. M., Donnelly, J., & Feigl, H. B. (2015). Interactions between sleep habits and self-control. Frontiers in human neuroscience9, 284. .

5. Stress Management

One should learn to manage stress because stress management helps in strengthening self-control and boosting energy and willpower. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. These will help in recharging the mental energy.

Overcome Ego Depletion

Ego Depletion has been induced in suppressing thoughts or emotions, in making various difficult decisions. The resulting condition often leads to making less restrained decisions. It represents a state of low energy available for the self.

Ego Depletion At A Glance

  1. Ego Depletion is a phenomenon when a person ends up using his/her available willpower on one task or work. 
  2. Ego depletion is shown to have self-regulation impairments.
  3. Ego depletion can also be implicated in guilt.
  4. Ego Depletion has been induced in suppressing thoughts or emotions, in making various difficult decisions.


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