26 January 2012
According to the fashionable new theory of “ego depletion,” our willpower is a “scarce resource” directly linked to the glucose level in our body.
Need extra willpower to fight off that temptation to eat a candy bar?
Solution: Eat a candy bar!
* * *
Seriously, though, what does the theory say?
In a 1998 paper that has been widely cited, psychologists found that people who were asked to do a task that required them to resist temptation (eating radishes instead of chocolates), subsequently had less patience to complete a second task consisting of attempting to solve an insoluble puzzle.
Explanation: Willpower must be a “scarce resource” that got all used up by the first task, so there was less of it left for the second task.
As the authors of the paper in question wrote:
Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost, in the sense that afterward participants were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration.(1)
Initially, they refused to speculate about the nature of the physical resource being “depleted”:
We find it implausible that ego depletion would have no physiological aspect or correlates at all, but we are reluctant to speculate about what physiological changes would be involved.(2)
Subsequently, scientists hypothesized that the physical resource that our willpower directly depends upon is glucose.
This is all basically a rehash of Freud’s long-discredited “hydraulic” theory of the human personality. In place of old-fashioned steam-powered machines, we are now invited to think of ourselves as glucose-powered automatons. That’s the only real difference.
Recently, the theory has been picked up by the pop science media. Just a couple of weeks ago, The New York Times‘s veteran science reporter, John Tierney, pushed the theory in an article entitled, ”Be It Revolved.”(3)
Among other things, this piece claims that the ego-depletion theory explains why it is so difficult to lose weight:
The more you starve your body, the less glucose there will be in your bloodstream, and that means less willpower. Because of this vicious cycle, even people with great self-control in the rest of their lives can have a terrible time remaining slim.
I guess my joke about the candy bar was not so funny, after all . . .
But, really, what should we make of all this?
There is always a great deal to say about such claims. For one thing, it is indeed a matter of everyday observation that mental work, such a long period of concentration upon some problem, produces fatigue. We’ve all experienced this ourselves. Who would dream of denying it—or of devising an experiment to prove it?
For another thing, unless you are a substance dualist (and I am not tempted by that doctrine), then of course willpower—like every thought, every feeling, and every other aspect of our waking experience—has its physiological correlate. Or, better, each mental occurrence is constituted by some physical occurrence.
But none of this entails that willpower is a “scarce resource,” much less that it is crudely dependent upon a nutrient like glucose.
Like so much of contemporary scientism (the effort to reduce all of human life to physics and chemistry), the ego depletion theory takes a few obvious, even banal, observations, and then imposes an interpretive straitjacket on them that explodes the original kernel of common sense like so much popcorn, leaving us with a puffed-up claim that is so exaggerated—and that so oversimplifies the complex phenomenology—that it amounts to sheer silliness.
A simple thought experiment is enough to show this is the case with the trendy ego-depletion theory:
Scenario 1: You are on vacation. You have spent the day hiking up to Williams Lake, high above Taos, and back down again. It’s been an all-day excursion, with a minimal snack along the trail. When you arrive back at your hotel, you are tired and hungry, but also exhilarated and in the best of spirits.
Scenario 2: You have spent a day at the office dealing with one crisis after another. Your boss called you on the carpet for a late report. Your computer crashed. Then, it snowed and your commute home was bumper-to-bumper. Although you have been physically inactive—in fact, sitting—all day long, and though you had an excellent lunch, you arrive home in a state of utter exhaustion, and in the lowest of spirits.
Question 1: Now, suppose a social scientist asks you to take an idiotic test. In which scenario are you more likely to humor him?
Scenario 1, I should think.
And in which scenario are you more likely to tell him to go to the devil?
Surely, scenario 2.
Question 2: In which scenario is your glucose supply likely to be more “depleted”?
Well, during exercise there can be a temporary spike in blood-glucose level, but afterwards it drops back again. And with fasting, the level drops further. So, most likely your blood-glucose level will be lower in scenario 1—the scenario in which your capacity to put up with nonsense is likely enhanced.
And though your glucose level would likely be normal or even somewhat elevated in scenario 2—a heavy lunch, all that sitting around—it is hard to imagine your putting up with the sort of nonsense the poor psychology majors in the original study were subjected to.
In other words, common sense indicates that while our mood may indeed exert a strong influence on our “willpower”—if that is even the right word for the willingness to humor a supercilious social scientist—glucose level surely does not.
But the difficulties with the ego-depletion theory do not end there.
To appreciate the full extent of the fatuity of the theory, we must consider a third scenario:
Scenario 3: Imagine, as in the 1998 study, that a gentleman in a white lab coat made you eat a bunch of radishes while smelling chocolate chip cookies. Then, imagine that the same individual asked you to work on an insoluble puzzle, and that you told him to shove it after a short time (a shorter time than the control group that was not provoked with the bloody radishes).
Finally, imagine that you now smell smoke and—being a brave person—you immediately jump into action to help organize the safe evacuation of the building.
Does anyone seriously imagine that whether you were given radishes to eat—that is, whether you had to exercise your willpower to keep from grabbing a forbidden chocolate chip cookie—would have the slightest bearing on how you would react in the emergency?
The only thing that would matter so far as your reaction in the emergency is concerned would be the kind of person you are—whether you are brave or cowardly. Under those circumstances, whether you were tired or frustrated wouldn’t even begin to enter into it.
And yet, according to the ego-depletion theory, in scenario 3 your willpower was all used up by eating those radishes. So, how could you summon the willpower to respond to the crisis in the way that you did?
If the ego-depletion theory were true, then we would have to carefully coddle our policemen and our firefighters to make sure they always got chocolate chip cookies, and never had to eat radishes, so they’d always have plenty of willpower available with which to do their duty in case a crisis arose.
I’d love to hear their opinion of this theory.
* * *
Where do I get off disputing “hard science” with mere common sense—or even worse, mere philosophy?
I am not disputing the straightforward results of the scientists’ experiments—though, as is usual in such cases, they tell us almost nothing we did not already know:
Mental fatigue exists. That’s right. That’s why we need mental rest. But our willpower is always there, just waiting for us to make use of it when we really need it.
So, while the facts are indisputable, their interpretation makes no sense at all.
Same thing for the dieting:
It’s tough to break bad habits. Right. That’s why we ought to encourage our children to form good habits from the very beginning. As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined. But tough doesn’t mean impossible.
With the right motivation and support, we can reform ourselves. People do it everyday. Thank goodness. Without the possibility of reform (or, if you prefer, redemption), human life would be very different from what it is—and much worse.
So, the problem is not with the science as such—with the quantitative measurements. The trouble is with the theoretical interpretation—actually, “spin” would be a better word—that scientists put on the quantitative measurements.
And then science reporters like John Tierney come along and make things that much worse. And last of all, an awe-stricken and gullible public lap up this drivel as though as though it were from the lips of the Delphic oracle.
It’s time that all concerned gave it a rest. Because when it comes to human nature, common sense is the Delphic oracle.
(1) Roy F. Baumeister, et al., “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, 74: 1252–1265; p. 1255.
(2) ibid.; p. 1263.
(3) Tierney also recently coauthored a popular book with the lead author of the 1998 study: Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (Penguin, 2011).