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What is the state of the ego depletion field?

by elityre1 min read9th Aug 201911 comments



It's been almost a half decade since the replication crisis in psychology broke, and one of the major casualties was the subfield of ego depletion. (I belive this was the initial large scale meta-analysis that found no effect. And here is a popular article on the failure to replicate.)

Does anyone have a good summary of the state of that research program? Is there any part of it that held up? What can we conclusively say about self control, willpower, depletion of mental resources, etc?

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This has been my default reference for the past few years:


It's from 2016, so I don't actually know where things are right now. But presumably not that much has changed.

I'm late to this party, but Baumeister's responses and comments in the recent journal article are horrifying.  

Having mentored several dozen budding researchers as graduate students and postdocs, I have seen ample evidence that people’s ability to achieve success in social psychology varies. My laboratory has been working on self-regulation and ego depletion for a couple decades. Most of my advisees have been able to produce such effects, though not always on the first try. A few of them have not been able to replicate the basic effect after several tries. These failures are not evenly distributed across the group. Rather, some people simply seem to lack whatever skills and talents are needed. Their failures do not mean that the theory is wrong.

wat ;(

For those of you following along at home, this post has a section "What Ego-Depletion Studies Are Most Likely to Replicate?"

Note sure if you consider this a relevant answer, but previously Critch had argued that willpower seemed distractible.

Indeed, willpower and working memory are both strongly mediated by the dorsolateral prefontal cortex, so “distraction” could just be the two functions funging against one another. To use the terms of Stanovich popularized by Kahneman in Thinking: Fast and Slow, "System 2" can only override so many "System 1" defaults at any given moment.

So what’s going on when people say "willpower depletion"? I’m not sure, but even if willpower depletion is not a thing, the following distracting phenomena clearly are:

  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Sleepiness
  • Physical fatigue (like from running)
  • Physical discomfort (like from sitting)
  • That specific-other-thing you want to do
  • Anxiety about willpower depletion
  • Indignation at being asked for too much by bosses, partners, or experimenters...

... and "willpower depletion" might be nothing more than mental distraction by one of these processes. Perhaps it really is better to think of willpower as power (a rate) than energy (a resource).

If that’s true, then figuring out what processes might be distracting us might be much more useful than saying “I’m out of willpower” and giving up. Maybe try having a sip of water or a bit of food if your diet permits it. Maybe try reading lying down to see if you get nap-ish. Maybe set a timer to remind you to call that friend you keep thinking about.

The last two bullets,

  • Anxiety about willpower depletion
  • Indignation at being asked for too much by bosses, partners, or experimenters...

are also enough to explain why being told willpower depletion isn’t a thing might reduce the effects typically attributed to it: we might simply be less distracted by anxiety or indignation about doing “too much” willpower-intensive work in a short period of time.

Of course, any speculation about how human minds work in general is prone to the "typical mind fallacy". Maybe my willpower is depletable and yours isn’t. But then that wouldn’t explain why you can cause people to exhibit less willpower depletion by suggesting otherwise. But then again, most published research findings are false. But then again the research on the DLPFC and working memory seems relatively old and well established, and distraction is clearly a thing...

All in all, more of my chips are falling on the hypothesis that willpower “depletion” is often just willpower distraction, and that finding and addressing those distractions is probably a better a strategy than avoiding activities altogether in order to "conserve willpower".


I definitely consider this a relevant answer.

This paper seems at least a little relevant.

Abstract: The brain’s reliance on glucose as a primary fuel source is well established, but psychological models of cognitive processing that take energy supply into account remain uncommon. One exception is research on self-control depletion, where debate continues over a limited-resource model. This model argues that a transient reduction in self-control after the exertion of prior self-control is caused by the depletion of brain glucose, and that self-control processes are special, perhaps unique, in this regard. This model has been argued to be physiologically implausible in several recent reviews. This paper attempts to correct some inaccuracies that have occurred during debate over the physiological plausibility of this model. We contend that not only is such limitation of cognition by constraints on glucose supply plausible, it is well established in the neuroscience literature across several cognitive domains. Conversely, we argue that there is no evidence that self-control is special in regard to its metabolic cost. Mental processes require physical energy, and the body is limited in its ability to supply the brain with sufficient energy to fuel mental processes. This article reviews current findings in brain metabolism and seeks to resolve the current conflict in the field regarding the physiological plausibility of the self-control glucose-depletion hypothesis.

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Not something you'll see in papers, but the point of willpower is to limit the amount of time doing stuff you don't want to do. So, your community has some morality that isn't convenient for you? That's why it costs willpower to follow that morality. Your job is tiring? Maybe deep down you don't believe it's serving your interests.

If you have a false belief about what you want, e.g. "I actually want to keep this prestigious position because yay prestige, even though I get tired all the time at work", well, that's a thing a lot of people end up believing, because nobody told them to use "things that make you tired" as a proxy for "things I don't want".

Obviously this has nothing to do with e.g. blood glucose levels.

Papers that make a somewhat related argument:

Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited (2014):

Self-control refers to the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions, thus enabling behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment. Dominating contemporary research on this topic is the viewpoint that self-control relies upon a limited resource, such that engaging in acts of restraint depletes this inner capacity and undermines subsequent attempts at control (i.e., ego depletion). Noting theoretical and empirical problems with this view, here we advance a competing model that develops a nonresource-based account of self-control. We suggest that apparent regulatory failures reflect the motivated switching of task priorities as people strive to strike an optimal balance between engaging cognitive labor to pursue ‘have-to’ goals versus preferring cognitive leisure in the pursuit of ‘want-to’ goals.

Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Ego Depletion (2016):

The shifting-priorities process model describes ego depletion as a type of mental fatigue that occurs after engaging in any effortful, unrewarding task. Both humans and nonhuman animals are evolutionarily incentivized to properly balance between their immediate and long-term needs; excessive attention to future preparations can hurt immediate survival, but sometimes delaying gratification is advantageous. The balance between seeking immediate rewards and seeking resources for the future can be seen in foraging decisions (exploitation vs. exploration) as well as trade-offs between labor and leisure, and between have-to and want-to goals. The effortfulness of a task is determined not only by the use of executive functions, but also by the degree of immediate enjoyment produced by the task, and this effortfulness drives the feeling of fatigue. After experiencing an activity as unrewarding and effortful, people's attention and motivation shift away from continuing effortful future-oriented tasks and toward gratifying stimuli; these changes are seen both behaviorally and neurologically.

Nice, but the second paper is less on track, as the idea is more "people, society etc. coerce you to do things you don't want" than "long vs short term preferences".

My model says that people coerce themselves to do long term tasks because they don't know how to naturally motivate themselves using tools like mental contrasting. So the coercion is still there, but it's internal.