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Ego Depletion: Definition, Theory & Examples

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Is your willpower like a muscle that gets tired if you use it too long? In this lesson, we will discuss the concept of ego depletion, including its definition, the theories behind it, and examples of the effect.

What is Ego Depletion?

Have you ever felt that every time you manage to 'do the right thing' it makes it that much harder to resist temptation the next time? You put away the doughnuts and grab the celery, only to find that you're spending money you shouldn't or yelling at the dog. Good decisions seem to take up all your willpower, leaving you at a disadvantage when the next challenge comes along.

Ego depletion is the idea that the decision-making process in your brain, particularly when you are going against your preferences, has limited strength. Psychologists refer to your 'ego' as the cognitive (conscious) part of your brain. Ego depletion theories, such as the psychological resource limitations proposed by social psychologist Roy Baumeister during his tenure at Case Western University, promote the idea that you only have so much conscious willpower and if it runs out, your ability to make good decisions is seriously impaired. Your mind acts like a muscle, eventually tiring and weakening if it is used for too long without rest.

Although everyone has probably noticed that they have a harder time making good choices when they are ''tired,'' scientific studies have had a difficult time pinning down the effects. Scientists aren't really sure how ego depletion works, or why; however, an understanding of the neurological (nerve communication) circuits in your brain can help create a picture of what is probably taking place.

Limited Resources in the Mind

Your brain is an intricate array of interconnected nerve pathways, and they all need certain chemicals and energy to work. Your brain receives sensory signals from all over your body, and the control centers in your brain decide what to do next. It's like having hundreds of billions of small people in there, each with the job of flipping a switch at the right moment, and working together to make things happen.

In your brain, each nerve connection requires certain chemicals, called 'neurotransmitters', to ''flip the switch'' and ''turn on the next connection down the line''. Meanwhile, the nerve cell attached to the connection requires food and oxygen for energy and cell repair. Your heart, the neurotransmitter production facilities in your organs, and your blood are all working very hard to make sure that every connection has plenty of resources. But the resource level available to any one point in your brain is also affected by diet, rest, stress, etc., and is impacted most of all by how much you've used the connections recently.

Ego depletion theories go a step further, proposing that certain areas of your brain, particularly those related to decision-making, are closely interconnected, all drawing resources from the same storehouse. Even if you're rested, well-fed, and emotionally calm, a constant drain on your decision-making willpower can create a depleted state, where it becomes increasingly difficult to resist your urges and make wise choices.

Examples of Ego Depletion

Perhaps you love to do crossword puzzles, but today's puzzle is proving difficult. You're determined to finish, because you always feel good when you complete one. So you reach for your traditional ''crossword puzzle snack''. But what do you eat? There are two plates on the table, one with healthful vegetables and another with tasty-looking sugary treats. Which one do you choose? You really want the cookies, but you force yourself to resist them and pick up a bunch of carrots to munch on instead. A little disappointed, you return to your puzzle, only to find that now you don't really care whether you finish the puzzle or not. What changed?

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