Many people can’t understand how Ty does it.
Consider a typical weekday for Ty. That means waking up at 6:30 am and getting ready to run. It's freezing, and Ty's lips turn blue, but that doesn't stop Ty from going ten miles. After that, it's time for a 12-hour workday, including two three-hour stretches with no break. Ty's meals are a salad, some hummus, some cheese, fruit, and eight no-sugar protein bars. At 9 pm, Ty decides to hit the climbing gym for an hour and finally wraps up the day with another 90 minutes of work. Ty gets in bed at 12:30 am for six hours of sleep.
This schedule, as far as Ty is concerned, is easy and unremarkable. How could this schedule possibly feel easy?
You, like most people that know Ty, probably assume Ty has remarkable self-control. But the interesting thing - that Ty will readily admit - is that Ty really doesn't. At least not the sort of "self-control" you're likely thinking about.
To understand how Ty lives such a self-controlled life, let's peel back the layers of what self-controlled behavior actually is. Rather than the typical approach of treating it as a black box, we're going to rip it apart to explore which pieces are easier to change and which ones you may be stuck with for life. By adjusting these easier-to-change parts, you may be able to increase how much control you have in your life, even if you can't change your "self-control” (as some would think of it). If you can achieve this, it may well translate into making healthier choices and achieving more of your life goals.
In this article we'll be exploring:
- Nine traits of self-controlled behavior (what self-control looks like when we peel it apart)
- How these traits differ from what most people think of as "self-control"
- Whether self-control is genetic
- Twelve strategies for gaining more control in your life
- A step-by-step process for applying these strategies
- The strange case of Ego Depletion (where, after hundreds of studies, scientists still disagree about whether self-control can get drained like a battery)
Before We Get To Self-Control: What's This Thought Saver thing?
In a moment you'll notice that something is different about this article. It has Thought Saver widgets embedded in it, designed to help you absorb the content as you go! Just click on each of those widgets to quiz yourself on what you've learned so far. You can also click here if you want to try out the free Thought Saver tool for yourself, or get all the flashcards for this article. We created Thought Saver to help make it faster and easier to learn and remember important ideas (based on a homegrown approach I personally have been using for years that I LOVE). Thought Saver is still in beta though - we'd greatly appreciate your feedback regarding how to make it better! The collaboration for this post came about because the LessWrong team said they were thinking of experimenting with memory aids directly in articles. So we joined forces in order to do this fun experiment - please let us know what you think of it!
One more thing: to my knowledge the idea of embedding quizzes right into an essay began with the incredible introduction to quantum computation (called Quantum Country) written by the extremely brilliant Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak. Note that Thought Saver isn't focussed on making spaced repetition-based essays - if that's your interest, definitely check out Andy's work, as he's doing cool stuff in that space.
Now let's get going and explore self-control!
Nine Traits of Self-Controlled Behavior
Let's define "self-controlled behavior" to be taking the actions that are better for you in the long-term over those that would feel more desirable in the short-term.
There are quite a number of traits that can cause someone to act in a self-controlled manner. To make them easier to understand, I've divided them into four broad categories, each of which encompasses multiple traits:
I. Classic Self-Control
1. Awareness of temptation: at the movies, many people mindlessly shovel overly-salted popcorn into their mouth until they're surprised to find the bag empty - but Ally periodically notices how much popcorn she's been eating, is aware of her urges to eat more, and is therefore capable of making a choice regarding these urges.
2. Tendency to override temptation: whenever Todd passes the candy bowl at the reception desk, he overrides his urge to eat a piece of candy, walking on by.
II. Helpful preferences
3. High motivation: Asha used to find it really difficult to get herself to exercise, never managing to do it consistently. That is until her doctor told her that if she doesn't change her behavior, she's predicted to die ten years younger than she otherwise would. This terrified her since she wants to be there for her grandchildren. Now she exercises six days per week, without fail. Fear of death motivated Asha to change her behavior.
4. Delayed gratification: Kim has a big exam next week and really doesn't want to study. But she has always been the sort of person that makes short-term sacrifices for long-term benefit. So she studies tonight, knowing she'll be happy about it tomorrow. Her discount rate on future value (relative to the present) is lower than most people's.
5. Lack of unhealthy desires: Sue doesn't like the taste of sweets and finds alcohol unappealing. It takes her no effort to resist eating cookies. She thinks salads taste much better and rarely experiences the temptation of eating unhealthy foods in the first place.
III. Pain tolerance
6. High pain tolerance: Dan has the goal of finishing a marathon, so he runs five days per week. Sure, it's a lot of running and cold as heck outside where he lives. But the cold and burning in his muscles just don't bother him much. Others would suffer far more from those same experiences.
7. Nonchalance toward future suffering: Amilia signs up for Tough Mudder races, even though she finds them excruciatingly unpleasant. She knows how painful the race will be, yet that doesn't deter her from repeatedly putting herself in that situation. She's not one to avoid something she finds valuable just because it's painful - the thought of future pain just doesn't deter her much. Similarly, she doesn't put off painful dental work or hesitate to leap into a freezing cold pool (even though she knows it will feel awful for the first minute).
8. Energy: Donny works 90 hours per week. While his schedule would grind most people to an exhausted pulp, he's famous for his endless energy. On his tenth hour of working each day, he feels as peppy as most people do on hour number two. And even after all this work, Donny can easily avoid making short-sighted decisions (like eating pizza for dinner every night) since he doesn't experience the exhaustion that might lead others to make such choices.
9. Flow: If she were to pay close attention, Rita would notice that her sprinting routine feels like having your leg muscles ripped apart while constantly being on the verge of puking. But the reality is that Rita gets into such a deep flow state while sprinting that she isn't aware of the passage of time, let alone how awful it all feels.
Exercise 1: before reading on, in order to better understand yourself, I recommend taking a minute right now to think about which of the nine traits of self-control you are high in, vs. about average in, vs. low in:
- Classic Self-Control
- Awareness of temptation
- Tendency to override temptation
- Helpful preferences
- Delayed gratification
- Lack of unhealthy desires
- Pain tolerance
- Pain tolerance
- Nonchalance toward future suffering
Of course, it's possible for these traits to be domain-specific (e.g., you may lack unhealthy desires around food, but have an unhealthy desire to play video games until your eyes hurt). But that being said, it can still be useful to consider which we are generally high or low in.
We can think of the first two items in the list above as the components of what people usually mean when they say "self-control" - the awareness and restraining of one's impulses. For our purposes, to differentiate it from the other traits, we'll call the combination of these two traits "classic self-control." But as we can see, these represent just a fraction of the traits that lead to self-controlled behavior.
When you experience the temptation or urge to do something that's bad for you in the long-term or to not do something that's good for you in the long-term, classic self-control works like this:
- you experience the urge
- you notice it
- you override it
- you avoid the urge
But there are so many other ways a person can act in a self-controlled manner beyond being unusually aware of temptations or being unusually likely to override a temptation after noticing it.
As we saw above, someone may simply not feel the temptation in the first place, or they may experience less suffering from avoiding the temptation. They may be less motivated to prevent such suffering, or they may value their future well-being more than other people do. They may have high motivation to avoid the temptation or have unusually high levels of energy that prevent exhaustion or easily get into flow states that prevent "unpleasant" tasks from being experienced as unpleasant.
We're now ready to understand how Ty maintains the unusually disciplined lifestyle described above without actually having an above-average level of classic self-control.
This is best explained by simply quoting Ty on related topics:
"The worst part of running is...well...not running."
"Marathons are not tiring."
"I don't care about pain or discomfort; I just care about running."
"I was coming up with mantras today while running:
Go for glory.
Suffering is glorious.
The last one is my favorite.”
"I'm getting bored of boxing. It's too short. Forty-five minutes is not a workout; it's a warmup."
Two days after completing a marathon: "I'm so lazy, I shouldn't feel this good after a race."
"When I was reading [this self-control post], it struck me, perhaps for the first time, that some people don't like hard exercise."
Ty doesn't have high classic self-control (awareness of temptation + tendency to override temptation) or delayed gratification. Ty sometimes eats half a jar of peanut butter in one sitting and procrastinates on getting out the door for runs. Ty’s been working on creating a stretching habit for years with little success.
On the other hand, Ty has a very unusual lack of unhealthy desires (peanut butter consumption aside), an extremely high pain tolerance, low suffering avoidance, very high motivation in work and exercise, high energy, and a tendency to get into immersive flow states.
Whenever Ty doesn't feel like running, Ty skips it. Ty loves salads and doesn't especially like sweets. Ty loves working hard. Ty isn't averse to suffering during exercise. Ty doesn't get tired easily, even on little sleep. Ty gets absorbed by work activities and can often stick with them for hours without distraction.
The Heritability of Self-Control
Why do some people have better self-control than others?
It seems that at least some (perhaps all) of the traits listed above that can lead to self-controlled behavior are at least moderately genetically determined. By many accounts, personality traits (such as those measured by the Big Five) have heritability in the order of 40%. When researchers have subdivided conscientiousness (the Big Five trait most intuitively related to self-control), its individual facets (such as "Deliberation" and "Dutifulness") also appear to have a genetic component. Luciano and colleagues found that all conscientiousness facets were influenced by genes, with "broad sense heritabilities" ranging from 18% to 49%. Even "nuances" of personality (which measure aspects of personality that are more fine-grained than facets) appear to be partially heritable (see 1 and 2). A meta-analysis attempting to calculate the heritability of self-control specifically puts it around 60%.
Fortunately, there is still recourse if we are born without much classic self-control. A common mistake is to assume that moderate heritability implies that a trait cannot be changed. To see why this is silly, consider the fact that muscle mass has significant heritability but can obviously be modified by weight lifting. People often think of heritability as a property of a trait itself, but really it is a property of a trait paired with a particular environment. As better strategies are developed for modifying that trait, or if such strategies are adopted more widely, the heritability can drop. For instance, if a new type of highly effective strength training became very popular, the measured heritability of muscle mass would fall as more people grew more muscular!
Importantly, even if a trait can't be changed by any known interventions, it may still be possible to change important outcomes related to that trait. Imagine a person with relatively poor working memory who can keep - at most - a five-digit number in their mind. This person can learn to use a piece of scratch paper to augment their working memory when they need to remember numbers (by simply writing down the digits and reading them back as needed). Not only does this work, but it works so well that the piece of scratch paper allows them to do better at this task than just about anyone who has to rely on memory alone.
Returning to self-control, this suggests that even if traits related to self-control are partially heritable (which seems likely), we still may be able to alter these traits. And even if we can't alter these traits, we may be able to apply strategies that achieve similar outcomes to what we'd achieve if we could alter them.
In the next section, I consider strategies you may be able to apply in your own life in order to act with more self-control.
Twelve Simple Strategies for Gaining More Control
Below is a list of simple strategies that you may be able to apply to live with more self-control, whether or not you are a person who tends to have a lot of it naturally. I've divided them into categories to make them easier to digest.
1. Sidestepping temptation: Sally is a sucker for ice cream. When it's in the freezer, she eats the whole container in one go. But when she's at the store, it's easy enough not to buy any. So she doesn't buy ice cream anymore, and she asks her husband not to buy it either.
2. Total elimination: Kenneth used to have a problem with alcohol. He finally quit by going cold turkey. He doesn't even allow himself one beer, because he knows that if he does have one, he's going to be extremely tempted to have more.
3. Avoiding impaired decision-making: Don used to do his weekly food shopping after work, which meant he would do it when hungry and exhausted. Now he does it on Saturday after lunch, when he is fresh and well-rested, so these days he finds that he naturally wants to buy healthier foods when he's at the grocery store.
4. Attention triggers: Jupiter took a Center for Applied Rationality workshop, where she learned to design Trigger Action Plans (TAPs) for paying attention. These are plans of the form “if this happens, then I’ll execute this action plan” - for example, "when I'm finding my daily writing difficult, and I'm thinking about quitting, I'll notice that and try to figure out what's going wrong (rather than mindlessly checking Twitter to avoid writing)." By rehearsing this TAP, she was able to use it in real life. This helped her to make her writing sessions longer. Note: if you want to design your own implementation intention, and then apply techniques to help make it stick, you may find our Program Yourself tool useful.
5. Making goals more desirable: Killroy used to force himself to run daily. This was hard, and he often avoided it. But then he tried swimming and realized that he enjoys it much more, and finds it easier to get himself to do. By swapping running for swimming (which he finds a lot more fun), he made healthy exercise much easier.
6. Associations and framing: Joel used to love cake and ate it all the time. But now, when he thinks about eating it, he immediately imagines the regret he'll feel five minutes afterward - and the cake has a more negative association now. And when he thinks about going to the gym, he imagines how buff he's going to be in 12 months (from all that lifting) and gets excited. His long-term goals tend to jump to mind when he's considering doing something he may regret.
7. Temptation bundling: Marija hates going on the treadmill, but loves playing video games on her phone. By only allowing herself to play those games when on the treadmill, she finds that she now looks forward to the treadmill.
8. Mindfulness of desire: Philip sometimes has a strong desire to watch TV before bed, even though it interferes with his sleep. Fortunately, from his meditation practice, he's developed the skill of viewing his thoughts and feelings from an outside perspective, and observing them without being sucked into them. He's learned that he can observe a desire, and then just watch it without acting on it. So he notes the desire to watch TV and then lets it drift away, imagining that the desire is a leaf drifting away slowly on a stream. This is one of the skills we teach in our app for anxiety, Mind Ease (there we call it "defusion" because you are un-fusing from a thought).
9. Routines and habits: Jimmy had set a goal for himself of doing push-ups the moment he gets home from work. The first three weeks were a struggle. But now Jimmy hops down onto the ground for push-ups as soon as he's home (sometimes before he even realizes what he's doing). Doing push-ups went from something Jimmy would occasionally think about doing but usually avoid, to a routine that he would think of upon entering his home (and then usually do by default), to a habit that has become automatic. Note: if you want to form a new daily habit, you may find our free habit formation tool, Daily Ritual, useful for that purpose. It can be especially useful to start with a simple morning habit that you can then attach more pieces to overtime. Your morning habit could even be a "meta habit," such as "when I wake up I do the things from this list I keep," then you can keep adjusting what's on the list over time.
10. Plunging ahead: Teddy finds it really hard to sit down and write for an hour, and he typically avoids it, even though he aspires to be a great writer. However, he finds it easy to commit to a five-minute writing session. Once he has started, he finds that he usually gets so engrossed that he can write for twenty or thirty minutes before he even realizes how long he's been doing it. When even five minutes sounds difficult or unpleasant, he sets the simplest possible goal: just opening up the document he's working on. Even this tiny action is usually enough to get the process started.
11. Altering costs: Tom has figured out a way to drink less coffee. By keeping the coffee maker in his wife's office, she sees him each time he gets one. Since he fears her raised eyebrow with regard to his excessive caffeine intake, this makes it no longer worth it to get more coffee after the first two cups.
12. Accountability: like most of us, Roxana wants other people to think highly of her, to not be judged by the people she cares about, and to keep the commitments that she's made. She leverages those social motivations to get herself to engage in healthy behaviors by spending time around people that care a great deal about health, and who live in an exceptionally healthy manner. This influences her to eat more healthily and to exercise more. Another way that Roxana uses social influence to her advantage is that when she has an important project she keeps putting off, she'll schedule a co-working session with a friend or colleague and pre-commit to working on that project during that time. Note that some types of accountability could be viewed as a specific form of "altering costs." (Incidentally, I was finding it difficult to get myself to sit down to write this essay, and so I used this very method - thanks Clare for holding me accountable!)
How to Gain More Self Control Without Requiring "Self-Control"
So far we've considered traits of self-control, as well as strategies that can help us act in a more self-controlled way. But how can we put these ideas into action?
If you're interested in gaining more self-control in your life (whether or not you have won the genetic self-control lottery), I recommend the following procedure:
Step 1: Pick an area of your life in which you'd like to act with more self-control in (e.g., "exercise") and a concrete goal for that domain of your life (e.g., "exercise for at least 45 minutes per day at least three days per week").
Step 2: Review the list of self-control strategies (above), and pick out the two that you think are most likely to help you act with more self-control as you work toward achieving that concrete goal. Use your understanding of yourself (especially what has worked well for you in the past) to guide your selection. If you feel stuck, ask a friend to help you choose.
Step 3: Think up (or better yet, write down) the first small steps to put the two strategies you selected in the previous step into action. Take those steps immediately, or if that's not possible, choose a time when you will do them in the near future.
Step 4: Create a reminder of your intention to apply these two strategies (e.g., by sending an email to yourself, or adding an entry in your calendar, or writing a note to yourself and putting it on your desk).
Exercise 2: rather than simply reading these sentences, I highly recommend you stop right now and actually follow the steps above. Reading without taking action on what you've read is like cooking with imaginary ingredients. You don't get the delicious meal at the end. By following the steps above, you can greatly raise the chance that you put what you learned from this essay into action.
Rethinking Ego Depletion
An interesting debate in the academic literature is whether self-control is analogous to the energy in a battery, getting "used up" as we deploy it. If true, that means that after exerting a lot of self-control, it temporarily becomes harder for us to subsequently resist further temptation (until we "recharge" ourselves back to full capacity). Bizarrely, after hundreds of studies, this debate continues. What's going on here? How on earth could this not be settled after so many studies? I have a theory.
But before I explain it, let's take a closer look at the claim being made. As Wikipedia puts it:
"Roy Baumeister and his colleagues proposed a model that described self-control like a muscle, which can become both strengthened and fatigued. The researchers proposed that initial use of the “muscle” of self-control could cause a decrease in strength, or ego depletion, for subsequent tasks. Later experimental findings showed support for this muscle model of self-control and ego depletion...They showed that people who initially resisted the temptation of chocolates were subsequently less able to persist on a difficult and frustrating puzzle task. They attributed this effect to ego depletion, which resulted from the prior resisting of a tempting treat. Additionally, it was demonstrated that when people voluntarily gave a speech that included beliefs contrary to their own, they were also less able to persist on the difficult puzzle, indicating a state of ego depletion...When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion...there is currently no direct measure of ego depletion, and studies mainly observe it by measuring how long people persist at a second task after performing a self-control task."
The existence of ego depletion effects has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Hagger and colleagues noted in their recent paper that one meta-analysis of ego-depletion experiments found a medium-sized effect but that a subsequent meta-analysis contradicted these results.
In response to these contradictions in the literature, Hagger et al. carried out a huge randomized controlled trial, conducted as a 23 laboratory collaboration (with 2141 total study participants) to measure the size of the ego-depletion effect. Overall, they failed to find an ego depletion effect (the effect size was d=0.04, 95% CI [-0.07, 0.15]). They derived this by having control participants identify words with the letter 'e', while another group (whose self-control was to be depleted) did the same thing but had to withhold their response if the 'e' was next to a vowel. The depletion version "was considered to be more demanding, and to require greater self-control, than the no-depletion version because participants had to inhibit the tendency to respond to any 'e' and instead apply the more restrictive rules." On a survey given immediately afterward, this task caused the depletion group (compared to the control group) to report more effort, difficulty, and frustration, but not fatigue.
Next, the researchers attempted to measure whether ego depletion had actually occurred by showing participants three digits (such as 212), for which they had to indicate with their keyboard the identity of the digit that differs from the other ones (not its position - so for the example 212 they had to click on the 1st key indicating the number one, not the 2nd key indicating that the odd one out is in the second position). Word size was used to further throw off participants (by making the wrong digit a bit bigger or smaller than the others). Each participant had 100 rounds of this task (with 100 additional rounds of easier ones mixed in).
If ego depletion is real (the theory goes), we would expect participants in the depleting letter 'e' task to have slower reaction times and higher reaction time variabilities on the difficult rounds of the second task compared to those who had the simple version of the letter 'e' task. But they didn't.
So maybe ego depletion doesn't exist? But what to make of the alleged "300 independent studies [that] have replicated this effect during the 15 years since it was first reported"? Are all of these just false positives? Perhaps this is an egregious example of the replication crisis in psychology? But what then to make of this recent analysis of all the ego depletion meta-analyses claiming all the meta-analyses DO find an ego depletion effect, except in cases where they use specific (possibly flawed) bias correction techniques (see table)?
Here's my simple proposed answer to this question (epistemic status: speculative and controversial) based on the breakdown of self-control above:
MAYBE IT'S JUST BECAUSE SELF-CONTROL IS NOT ONE THING!!!
Of course, some psychologists have worked to carefully unpack what self-control means. But insofar as I'm correct about this claim above, it seems the significance of this point may be greatly underappreciated.
Imagine a scientific inquiry into the question of whether “banning shoelaces causes people to trip more”. Some studies find that banning shoelaces in the lab does indeed lead to more tripping. But in other studies, banning shoelaces has no effect. A conundrum. A meta-analysis concludes that tripping is associated with banned shoelaces, but not as reliably as people thought. Another meta-analysis says that some of those studies were really bad and should be thrown away. Furthermore, if you add back some unpublished studies and correct for pro-shoelace biased research, the relationship between shoelace bans and tripping can't be distinguished from noise. But really, the answer to whether banning shoelaces causes tripping depends on whether the population in question is wearing tennis shoes, loafers, or flip-flops. You’re not going to get a satisfying answer until you consider different types of shoes!
So here's my proposal regarding ego depletion: some aspects of self-control get "depleted", and others don't. While it is often useful and convenient to lump all aspects of self-control together (e.g., to point out to friend A that friend B has a lot of self-control, which may help friend A better understand friend B) when we are asking nuanced questions about what the properties of self-control are, we have to get more specific. My prediction, therefore, is that different tasks intended to produce "ego depletion" impact different parts of the self-control cluster concept (and some such tasks meaningfully impact none of the parts that have the potential to be depleted, which could explain the null findings that sometimes occur).
Let's quickly review some aspects of self-control that may be prone to "depletion" (taken here to broadly mean that they may drop in certain circumstances in a way that could lead to worse "performance" later).
1. Depletion of Motivation
As noted above, how motivated you are clearly matters for self-control. If you thought you were going to die immediately after eating your favorite unhealthy food, I'm certain you would stop eating it.
Now, suppose that you enrolled in a psychology study to contribute to advancing science or to get some class credit. If the study required you to do a highly frustrating task for long enough, you may have diminished motivation to try hard on the next (potentially even more frustrating) part of that stupid experiment. Is it any wonder that you might then give up on an impossible puzzle task sooner than those who were given a less frustrating task at the beginning? Screw those researchers. In the failed replication attempt mentioned above, motivation was not measured (so we don't know whether the difficult 'e' finding task reduced motivation). In any event, a meaningless 'e' finding task may not be an ideal simulation of real-world scenarios.
Remember all those simple self-control strategies we talked about, that you can apply even if you aren't strong in self-control-related traits? Another potentially interesting form of motivation-related depletion might result from an ego-depletion task causing people to lose motivation to apply their most effective self-control strategies! For instance, at the beginning of the study, you might have been deploying your best weapons against scarfing down the cake they gave you, but, by the end of the study, you don't feel motivated to use those strategies anymore.
2. Depletion of Energy
It will come as a great shock to you (if you were not born on Earth and this is your first encounter with human culture) that some things make people tired, and that once people are tired, they perform worse at tasks and often want to take a break, and that after such a break they may well feel recharged. As I think we have all experienced, there are some things that are physically tiring (like carrying heavy boxes around) and others that are mentally tiring (like doing hard math homework, or trying to fill out complicated, ambiguous forms that require cross-referencing information from many documents at once). Energy itself can probably be subdivided into at least four different parts (sleepiness, mental tiredness, physical tiredness, and slowness, as we did here), though for our purposes that's probably more subdivision than we need.
Now, imagine that you enroll in a psychology study that requires you to maintain intense concentration, and you start to feel mentally tired. Is it really a surprise that you would then perform worse, or give up sooner, on a subsequent task, than if the original task had been less tiring? It would really surprise me if no such effect existed. It's worth noting that the big failed replication attempt mentioned above found that the ego-depletion task did not actually induce fatigue! It's possible the results would have been different had the task-induced fatigue, though we don't know.
Interestingly, there's a theory proposed in the academic literature (that I learned about after writing the first draft of this essay) that the ego depletion effect, rather than being connected to self-control specifically, is better thought of as being due to "transient cognitive fatigue."
3. Depletion of Desire to Delay Gratification
If you're like me, you sometimes allow yourself to indulge more than usual after you've worked really hard or if you’ve done a really good job. For instance, if I've worked out really hard, I'm less likely to feel bad about indulging in an unhealthy meal, even though it is just as unhealthy after a big workout. I suspect that, at least for me, this is because I have a barometer of "how good a job I'm doing at life,” and I try to keep it above a certain level. Similarly, I notice that I allow myself to indulge more when I'm going through a challenging period (e.g., if I had a really bad day, I cut myself some slack in terms of keeping up healthy habits). I think a lot of people do something similar. In other words, the extent to which we delay gratification isn't a fixed thing (even though some people have a much higher average tendency to do so than others) - we allow ourselves to do more or less of it based on various parameters. It's not too hard to believe that after contributing to science by doing that really annoying task over and over again, you're ready to let yourself eat those goddamn jelly beans they offer.
Note that I'm not claiming that the three self-control-related concepts above are the only ones that have the potential to "deplete" - but they are the ones I currently see as being the most likely to do so. It wouldn't surprise me though if, for instance, some difficult mental tasks made us feel hungry faster than others (though I doubt the 'e' finding task mentioned above would do so). Obviously, a high degree of hunger can cause us to perform less well on some subsequent tasks, and can cause us to give into food urges more readily. This potential connection between hunger and self-control is not so different from the hotly debated link between self-control and glucose.
On the other hand, there are the other trait-like aspects of self-control that seem far less likely to deplete. For instance, it's not as clear how one's "awareness of temptation" would get depleted, or "lack of unhealthy desires," or “tendency to get into flow states.”
Some people may want to say that things like "energy" and "motivation" are (by definition) not part of self-control or (by definition) not related to ego depletion. I don't have a horse in that semantic debate, except to say that we should try to be really clear regarding what we're talking about. I think that a lack of such clarity (even though some researchers have made efforts to clarify terms) has substantially contributed to the strange situation we find ourselves in - hundreds of studies have taken place yet there still being a debate over whether the phenomenon being studied exists at all! As Wikipedia explains:
"A 2010 meta-analysis of 198 independent tests [of ego depletion] found the effect significant with a moderate effect size (d = .6). Even after accounting for possible unpublished failed studies, the analysis concluded that it is extremely unlikely that the effect doesn't exist. In 2015, a meta-analysis of over 100 studies by Carter and McCullough argued that the 2010 meta-analysis failed to take publication bias into account. They showed statistical evidence for publication bias. When they statistically controlled for publication bias, the effect [was not significantly different from zero]...In response, Cunningham and Baumeister argued that Carter and McCullough analysis contained errors in its data collection and in the various analyses used."
Some conclude from this research that ego depletion simply isn't real. That possibility should be taken seriously.
On the other hand, I bet you have abundant first-hand evidence that:
- some tasks tire people out, causing them to perform less well on subsequent tasks (e.g., "I've been working at this for 5 hours - now I'm totally exhausted and barely making progress")
- some tasks demotivate people, causing them to try less hard on subsequent tasks (e.g., "I clearly suck at math - I'm going to fail this test even if I try my hardest.")
- when people have worked hard they relax their self-control, allowing themselves to splurge (e.g., "I worked my arse off today on that assignment, I deserve a night of Netflix with a chocolate fudge sundae.")
We could deny that any of the above are included in what we mean by "ego depletion." If we strip away enough of these meanings then, well, there is nothing left, and surely ego depletion won't be a thing anymore. This is why, again, it's critical to get clear on what we're really talking about. If we are asking people to do something like finding all instances of the letter 'e' in a text (with some other weird constraints to make the task more difficult), what precisely are we trying to deplete?
If what I've claimed is true (that self-control has different parts in an important sense) then it becomes weirdly difficult to interpret meta-analyses. If some aspects of self-control deplete (including pretty boring stuff like energy and motivation), and others don't (perhaps things like the tendency to notice when you're experiencing a temptation), then averaging across many studies (even if done perfectly) just gives information about the average level of self-control depletion across the many different protocols studied. In other words, you're averaging across some situations where we would expect depletion effects and others where we wouldn't, and the result is based on how many studies there are of each. Ideally, a meta-analysis handles this by looking for heterogeneity in studies, but this is a lot easier said than done (and is even tougher to do without a strong theory of what the important sorts of heterogeneity are - because you ultimately have to decide which studies to combine and which to leave separate).
So, what to conclude? Well, I think that “self-control” refers to many different traits. And, due to the considerations I've outlined above, I think that "self-control" sometimes gets depleted, and it sometimes doesn't. Whether it does or not depends on what aspect of self-control we're talking about and what the task is. Different tasks, I claim, will impact different aspects of self-control (some depletable, others not), and different ways of measuring depletion will measure different aspects of self-control. The details matter, because in an important sense self-control is not one thing!
Furthermore, as we've discussed, many traits impact self-control other than "classic" self-control (noticing temptation + overriding it). In practice, self-controlled behavior seems to be the result of a combination of traits (some of which are likely at least partially heritable), and a person’s ability to learn self-control strategies.
Finally, if you want to gain more control in your life, you may benefit from some of the strategies covered earlier in this article. If you haven't tried the step-by-step process (above) aimed at increasing control in your life, I recommend giving it a try now!
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