Ego Depletion Depletion

Wednesday, March 9, 2016
By dreeves

Homer with donuts, etc, on the brain

This is crossposted on Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done blog.

The big news in psychology this week is that Baumeister’s Ego Depletion model is bunk. At least it has failed to replicate.

I’m trying not to gloat too much but I’ve been pooh-poohing Ego Depletion for years. My take has been, based on the theory of hyperbolic discounting, that willpower is an illusion — a manifestation of the conflict between desires at different timescales. Which is why commitment devices, by changing your incentives, route around the problem entirely. Hooray Beeminder and friends! And hooray for economist Robert Strotz and psychologist George Ainslie who figured this all out between 1955 and 1975 or so.

Actually I really can’t gloat too much because I was far from the first to balk at Baumeister’s model. In fact, it wasn’t until Carol Dweck’s challenge that I publicly expressed my skepticism. Then Nick Winter wrote a book, The Motivation Hacker, the thesis of which is basically that willpower is an unlimited resource.

“With physical endurance you approach a physical limit asymptotically…”

More recently, Slate Star Codex reviewed Baumeister’s book, which is surprisingly light on Ego Depletion theory, other than to take it as a background fact. Slate Star Codex expressed skepticism, and even pointed out another replication failure for Ego Depletion from 2014, but did agree with the premise that mental willpower is depletable like physical willpower is. With the right inducement you may be able to eke out another mile of running or another hour of studying but in both cases the fatigue is real.

My counterargument is that with physical endurance you approach a physical limit asymptotically. The feeling that you can always eke out more with the right inducement is an illusion. Eventually one more straw will in fact break a camel’s back. With mental willpower it’s different. With the right inducement (say, continued employment) you can exert superhuman willpower, like waking up early and going to work every day for years or decades. Which is to say that with the right incentives, willpower doesn’t even need to be invoked. You can route around it and find creative ways to induce yourself to do what you really want to do.

“With the right inducement you can exert superhuman mental willpower.”

Since I’ve now segued elegantly back to Beeminder, the best way to use such a commitment device, at least initially, is not to probe the hard limits of willpower but to fix egregious instances of akrasia — to do a bit more than the bupkes you’d do if left to your own devices. You can then gradually dial up the steepness of your graph, but stop before feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.

In other words, make a measurable improvement well below the point that the limits of willpower are even a question (if you don’t think of it as routing around willpower altogether). Some people — like the productivity-ueber-alles types who try polyphasic sleep and whatnot — thrive on adding stress and Beeminder can accommodate that. But using it in moderation can reduce stress and that depleted ego feeling, like by getting you to spread your studying out over a semester instead of cramming for exams, or by making you pay attention to your Fitbit just enough to get in 10k steps a day, or getting yourself to bed on time instead of staying up until 6am writing a blog post.


PS: Discussion of Ego Depletion’s current replication crisis, along with practical implications, is ongoing in the Beeminder forum.


UPDATE: Follow-up post, “What Is Willpower?


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  • Daniel Reeves

    The interesting discussion is happening in the forum and on Mark Forster’s blog (see the link in the intro above) but let me copy here my attempt to translate the above into plainer English:

    1. A big finding in psychology is that “willpower is like a muscle”. For example, exerting willpower to not eat pie for breakfast will “deplete your ego” and make it harder to resist watching youtube videos instead of working in the afternoon. That spawned lots of advice about picking your willpower battles in the course of a day. The willpower-as-muscle analogy also led to advice about building up the strength of your willpower by exercising it.

    All that advice was based on a lie. The evidence for it now appears to be bogus.

    2. This is a massively big deal for the whole field of psychology because Ego Depletion was a very well-established result — dozens of studies all agreeing — and if it’s wrong then can we really believe any results from the psychology literature? This is psychology’s replication crisis and to the field’s credit they’re taking it dead seriously, like by launching the Reproducibility Project.

    3. How does willpower actually work? My opinion is that there’s no such thing as willpower, just responding to different incentives. You want this whole pie in your body right now, and also you want to be two sizes smaller by next summer. Conflicting preferences are normally no big deal. You just, y’know, weigh them, make your tradeoffs, and reach a decision. But when the preferences apply at different timescales (pie now, thinner later) humans suffer from a massive irrationality which philosophers call akrasia and economists call dynamic inconsistency and normal people call … being stupidly short-sighted, or in the case of time management: procrastination.

    4. Commitment devices are a way to change your own incentives so that willpower is a non-issue. They make your short term and long-term incentives line up. There are many less drastic things you can do as well.

    5. To the extent that you still want to think in terms of willpower, don’t try to jump straight to superhuman feats of strength. Start with fixing the egregious failures. Maybe pick a hobby that you’ve spent zero time on for weeks. It seems like you’ve been “too busy” but you know that’s false because you’ve spent non-zero time on many things of less value to you. So beemind spending at least half an hour a week on the hobby.

  • sbk

    Psychology’s largely self-imposed separation from *serious* philosophical discourse (some 170 years ago) was a serious mistake (spurred by a vain attempt to position psychological inquiry as a kind of science).

    The work under discussion in this blog and the response to that discussion are textbook examples of the conceptual vacuity that now characterizes modern psychology and its academic participants.

    The entire project of psychological science will eventually (and it will take a while — as we are credentialing folk way beyond their capabilities, and thus the virus remains unchecked) collapse into a black hole of intellectual irrelevance.