By Dr. Allison Belger
This is a re-post of an article I originally wrote back in August of 2013.
Recently, in my circles, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the levels of stress experienced by our kids, tweens, and teens, mostly due to high expectations, pressure to perform, over-scheduling, and not enough sleep. Private high school admissions, college admissions, soccer tryouts, auditions for plays pile on in areas where teen suicides abound. Certainly, as adults, we often ourselves beyond reasonable expectations, and it’s no wonder that we seem to struggle not to do the same to our children. Perhaps some of the science in this article will motivate you to help your children dial in priorities and let go of some of their extraneous, plate-filling activities and obligations. There really is only so much we can do before significant, and sometimes life-altering, negative consequences abound. Deep breaths, Everyone.
You know how memories are clouded by photographs? Sometimes what we think are memories from the reality of our past are actually mental constructions based on photographs and stories. Likewise, sometimes our memories are psychological constructions based on defense mechanisms or other aspects of our psyches. Here’s an example: When my brother (older than me by two years), came with my father to pick me up from college after my freshman year, he took one long, hard look at me and said, “What the hell happened to your face?” You see, like so many college freshman, I had packed on a few pounds over the course of the year. But the thing is, I’m pretty sure this story isn’t true and my brother never uttered those words. Instead, I think that was my own projection; I was so afraid that people at home would notice the change in my appearance that at some point I put all of that fear (and loathing) into my brother and made him the bad guy.
This post is actually not about memories or psychological effects on accurate reporting. This post is actually about will power, self-control, and the personal resources we possess to attack our goals and stick with our intentions. So why the story about my weight gain in college? It seems to me that the phenomenon of the Freshman Fifteen—the tendency of first-year college co-eds to gain an average of fifteen pounds—is quite understandable when we know a little more about will power and about the effects of difficult emotional demands on our capacity to make sensible choices. Assuming that most first-year co-eds don’t actually set out to gain weight and would prefer not to, there is likely some mechanism that makes this such a common outcome. I’m not interested in the easy answers here: beer drinking, binge eating, less exercise. I’m interested in the role of ego depletion—how our self-control resources become limited and impact our ability to make good choices. You see, will power–the ability to exert self-control,–is a finite resource. When it has been depleted on any given day, subsequent functioning can be compromised.
Nowhere is will power more obviously implicated than in the realm of dieting. The thing about dieting that we’ve heard a million times over but seem to ignore, out of desperation to fit into a dress for our best friend’s wedding or look better at the beach on vacation in Cabo, is that there is something inherently defeating about the simple act of “being on a diet.” Once we proclaim—whether in our own head or publicly—that we are on a diet, our psyches register deprivation. When we force ourselves to be deprived of something we want, we are engaged in a mental conflict that costs us energy, not unlike when we argue with a friend or family member. There is a psychic toll when we are forced to grapple with conflicts within ourselves or with conflicting goals. We both want to lose weight and to have cookies. We both want to be more muscular and to lie on the couch eating bon bons. We both want to win the race and to socialize the night before. With each run-in, we must choose an outcome, and the cost of doing so matters.
During the 1990s, there was a boon of interest in the field of social psychology in self-regulation and self-control as human resources. A pioneer in the field was Roy Baumeister. In 1998, he and his colleagues published a seminal paper discussing the finite nature of self-control and the concept of ego-depletion. According to the authors, “The core idea behind ego depletion is that the self’s acts of volition draw on some limited resource, akin to strength or energy, and that therefore, one act of volition will have a detrimental impact on subsequent volition. (p. 1252).” Their article told of four clever experiments, each of which demonstrated that we possess a finite amount of self-control capacity or energy. With each episode of depletion of that resource, we are left to face subsequent situations with a less robust level of self-control. Baumeister et al’s (1998) first experiment involved subjects who were left in a room with plates of radishes, on the one hand, and plates of chocolate cookies and candies on the other. Some subjects were told to eat a certain number of radishes but refrain from the chocolates, while others were told to eat the chocolates. Both groups were then asked to complete a geometric problem-solving task that was secretly unsolvable and to alert the staff when they were done or when they wished to stop trying. It turned out that the chocolate group persisted more than twice as long in their problem-solving efforts than the radish group. The authors concluded that something about the initial deprivation from eating chocolate had depleted subjects’ self-control and persistence resources, so that they were less able to work through the challenging geometric task.
Baumeister et al (1998) conducted three additional experiments, the results of which suggested that different kinds of challenges to our self-control resources lead to lower levels of persistence in subsequent tasks. In a similar vein, other studies have demonstrated that suppressing our emotions or engaging in challenging group interactions can negatively impact performance on subsequent, unrelated challenging tasks, in both the cognitive and motor domains (Muraven et al., 1998; Richeson & Shelton, 2003). It turns out that will power is a finite resource. Try as we might, we may just come up short in our efforts to repeatedly exert such power. And, beyond will power, emotionally draining and cognitively challenging endeavors also impact subsequent self-regulation and other aspects of our performance.
This ego-depletion model has been studied rigorously since the 1990s. According to Jamie Holmes (2011), more than 100 experiments have supported Baumeister et al’s (1998) results, indicating that we do, indeed, have a limited supply of will power or self-control, and as it is taxed, we are less likely to exert it subsequently. Inzlicht and Gutsell (2007) demonstrated that suppressing emotions made subjects less adept at detecting their own errors on subsequent tasks. This is fascinating stuff. Emotional restraint actually inhibits our brain’s ability to detect errors in our actions and inconsistencies between our behaviors and our goals. Seriously? This gives a whole new meaning to the term “emotional eating,” doesn’t it? Maybe we need to add “emotional laziness” or “emotional ineptitude” to our cultural lexicon!
Holmes (2011) applied the ego-depletion theory to the epidemic of poverty around the world. The point here is that poor people are forced to exert self-control regarding finances so often that they are then left in a state of depletion for all other challenges in life. With each financially-driven decision, they are forced to choose between competing goals or desires, a state of affairs that depletes their ego resources in ways people with money can escape. This might help people with relative financial wealth understand something more about how challenging it is to be poor. Maybe, I’m now thinking, there’s a legitimate analogy to those who are chronically obese; getting out of that category is exponentially harder than it is for an average-weight person to drop a few pounds, since the opportunities requiring abstinence in obese people might not even hit the radar of those who are average in weight.
For you athletes in the audience: A number of researchers have sought to apply the ego-depletion model of will power and self-regulation to athletic performance and exercise adherence. For example, Bray, Ginnis, Hicks, and Woodgate (2008) found that subjects who completed a taxing cognitive task exhibited significantly higher electromyographic activity during a subsequent physical (hand-grip) task, compared to controls who were not cognitively depleted prior to grip testing. These results show that people who are ego-depleted must recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same amount of work as those who are not. Likewise, Bray, Graham, Ginis, and Hicks (2011) showed that cognitive exertion led to a linear decrease in maximal voluntary muscular force production (also a hand-grip task), indicating that cognitive depletion affects muscular endurance. Dorris et al (2012) performed two experiments demonstrating that completion of challenging cognitive tasks prior to exercise diminished performance for competitive athletes. In their studies, competitive hockey players and competitive rugby players performed fewer reps of target exercises after completing difficult cognitive tasks than they did after working on simple, non-taxing cognitive tasks. Seriously? Maybe the whole “dumb jock” thing isn’t such a bad idea.
Hagger et al (2010) also discuss the physical/physiological implications of the ego-depletion model. They reviewed countless studies showing that when self-control resources get depleted, there are negative effects on subsequent physical performance and lower levels of adherence to exercise programs. The authors thus advise that people should “initiate exercise programs at times when they have few demands on their self-regulatory resources (p. 79).” In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to expect long-term success from committing to a new workout regimen during finals of law school. No wonder it can be so hard to get to the gym after a long day at school or a long day of decision-making and problem-solving at work.
The above review is a mere glimpse into the significant research on this fascinating topic, and you can dig deeper on your own if you’re so inclined. Just be sure you don’t have plans for a super-intense workout afterwards, as you’ll probably be a bit taxed. My goal here is to raise our collective awareness to the reality that various types of ego depletion affect not only our will power with regards to diet and exercise choices, but also our actual physical capacity to perform.
The reason I started along on this topic in the first place is because a long-time TJ’s Gym member named Rip emailed me asking for my take on the idea of finite will power and its impact on our ability to perform at the gym. Rip was also interested in how cognitive and emotional depletion can impact workouts, and how pushing hard through intense workouts can impact our functioning throughout the rest of our days. Thanks to Rip, I ended up knee-deep in the literature outlined above, depleting my self-regulatory and cognitive resources, and negatively impacting the quality of my workouts ever since. That’s right, Rip. I blame you for my crappy week of training and the extra treats in which I indulged while writing this article.
In all seriousness, Rip’s questions got me thinking about all sorts of applications of ego depletion. Through all of my years of schooling (and there were plenty), I’ve always found it amusing that some kind of comfort treat accompanied me and my computer and my textbooks, as though hot tea and cookies or a bowl of cherries could fuel my mind. I’d always sensed that this was some kind of self-reward process meant to soften the blow of all of that mental will power and tenacity. Turns out, I was kind of on to something; proactively providing a food reward somehow fended off the depletion of self-control and will power that might have happened, had I deprived myself of the treats that crossed my mind. In other words, I was finding a way to make sure that my will power and self-control energy was directed towards studying and not deprivation of yummy things. Of course, all behaviors are multi-determined and there were surely other reasons I would eat when I studied, but I’m quite sure this is part of the picture. I know I’m not alone—remember those days of college finals when you’d eat extra helpings of ice cream and bring candy bars to the library?
A similar phenomenon happened for me in my twenties when I was running marathons. Having no coaching or sensible training plan, I would pound the pavement day in and day out, often sixteen miles at a time. Much as I loved running, this kind of repetitive pounding often wasn’t all that much fun and required quite a bit of mental fortitude for me to carry on. Guess when in my life I ate more junk food than at any other time? During the times leading up to the marathons I ran. With this new understanding of will power and ego depletion, I feel sure that I was trying to provide some kind of prophylactic buffer against the mental challenge of will power it took to persevere during some of those training runs. But this state of affairs also begs one of Rip’s questions: How does physical training and intense exercise impact our will power in other areas? Perhaps the relationship goes both ways. This would mean that fatigue from physical work might negatively impact our subsequent self-restraint and cognitive and emotional functioning. Indeed, we know from the research above that if we force ourselves to persevere through a difficult workout–assuming that exercising rigorously is consistent with our long-term goals of health, wellness, and aesthetics–we are utilizing resources that will then be depleted as we go about our lives outside the gym or off the playing field. We know that the mental part taxes us; perhaps the physical aspect does, too. That can be a subject for a future article; there’s plenty here already to take in.
So what can we athletes and others take away from all of this? For those of you whose training is rigorous and whose workout routines are intense (e.g., CrossFit athletes), it might be a good idea to check in with yourselves as to the realities of the benefits of that peak level of intensity. If we think that constantly pushing our limits at the gym is wise and likely to set us up for greatness in the rest of our lives, we might want to think again. I have written about the post-exercise high and how we can harness it to attack goals in our lives. I absolutely believe that the fitter we are, the more likely we will be to tackle with grace and success the challenges we face. However, while we bask in the glory of the post-workout high, let us be mindful of our limited psychological and cognitive resources and recognize that there might be a psychic cost involved with the mental fortitude and discipline inherent in intense training, day in and day out. If you are doing a CrossFit AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workout during a particularly stressful time at work, those extra ten reps might cost you in the form of an hour of lost productivity at the office. Or those thirty seconds you took off your 5k run time just after a fight with your girlfriend might translate into a glazed doughnut and glass of wine later in the day. Remember, your stores of will power and mental fortitude are finite. Emotional stress affects those stores. Making tough choices and sticking with goals affects those stores. Make sure you are spending your self-regulation chits wisely, and don’t get too greedy with them. Short-term, you might be able to do it all, but long-term your stores are likely to get depleted. (see “Money Zone” article for more on the importance of saving your best self for your highest priorities.). This all sheds light on the phenomenon of burnout for athletes who train hard for long periods of time. Paying attention to our bodies is not enough—we need to pay attention to our minds, as well!
That’s right. There’s always that looming underbelly—your psyche will find a way to catch up with you if there is bubbling content to be dealt with. It will wreak havoc on your stores of will power and deplete your ego faster than refusing a bowl of your favorite ice cream ever could. Which brings us back, full circle, to those Freshman Fifteen. Given the emotional demands on new college students who are forced to regulate themselves outside of the watchful eye of parents for the first time in their lives, it is certainly understandable that deprivation from food and drinks might go by the wayside. As we have learned, there is only so much fuel in that tank of will power, and with every act of self-control we must exert, that tank is depleted. Having additional psychological challenges on top of the usual only makes the task that much more difficult for college freshman and for the rest of us. It behooves us all to be aware of these phenomena and do what we can do monitor ourselves appropriately.
Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.
Bray, S.R., Ginis, K.A.M., Hicks, A.L., and Woodgate, J. (2008). Effects of self-regulatory strength depletion on muscular performance and EMG activation. Psychophysiology, 45, 337-343.
Bray, S.R., Graham, J.D., Ginis, K.A.M, and Hicks, A.L. (2011). Cognitive task performance causes impaired maximum force production in human hand flexor muscles. Biological Psychology, 6740.
Dorris, D.C., Power, D.A., Kenefick, E. (2012). Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(2).
Hagger, M.S., Wood, C.W., Stiff, C., and Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010). Self-regulation and self-control in exercise: the strength-energy model. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(1), 62-86.
Holmes, J. (2011). Why can’t poor people escape poverty? New Republic Online Magazine.
Inzlicht, M. and Gotsell, J.N. (2007). Running on empty: Neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science, 18(11), 933-937.
Muraven, M., Tice, D.M., & Baumeister, R.F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.
Richeson, J.A., Baird, A.A., Gordon, H.L., Heatherton, T.F., Wyland, C.L., Trawalter, S., & Shelton, J.N. (2003). An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 1323–1328.