What is the state of the ego depletion field?

post by elityre · 2019-08-09T20:30:44.798Z · score: 25 (9 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

This is a question post.


    32 habryka

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?


answer by habryka · 2019-08-09T22:48:53.403Z · score: 32 (7 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by elityre · 2019-08-17T06:13:49.544Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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


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comment by Fluttershy · 2019-08-11T00:08:56.304Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-08-11T11:05:06.427Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.
comment by Fluttershy · 2019-08-11T11:58:31.387Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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".

comment by mr-hire · 2019-08-11T14:54:24.280Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.