“Ego Depletion”

You know when you feel down on yourself and you just can’t stop yourself from stuffing bad food into your mouth?


It may be caused by Ego Depletion.

I’ve mentioned before that self-control is like a tank of gas – each time you exert self-control, you draw from that tank and if you take too much out without giving yourself a “break,” you will lose all control and do something like stuff your face with bad food.

Recently, I’ve been desperately craving bad food. I even gave in and cheated last weekend because I just couldn’t resist.

I think it is a combination of working a lot, being sick and also getting a few negative comments that were blows to my ego that just made me lose control.

And that is probably exactly what it is based on a post that Candy set me yesterday. The post, called “Ego Depletion,” discusses facets and factors contributing to ego depletion.

I love the experiment discussed at the beginning of the post. Scientists have two different groups go and mingle at a social gathering. After the gathering, the scientists tell one group of people who people wanted to work with them while the other group was told that they needed to work alone since no one wanted to work with them.

Both groups were then asked to taste test some cookies. The group that had people who wanted to work with them ate fewer cookies than the group that had just been told that no one wanted to work with them.

On average the rejects ate twice as many cookies as the popular people. To an outside observer, nothing was different – same setting, same work, similar students sitting alone in front of scrumptious cookies. In their heads though, they were on different planets. For those on the sunny planet with the double-rainbow sky, the cookies were easy to resist. Those on the rocky, lifeless world where the forgotten go to fade away found it more difficult to stay their hands when their desire to reach into the bowl surfaced.

Why does this happen? Why does our self-control just seem to vanish when we suffer blows to our ego?

I like how the post tries to come up with some answers to this question:

The researchers in the “no one chose you” study proposed that since self-regulation is required to be prosocial, you expect some sort of reward for regulating your behavior. People in the unwanted group felt the sting of ostracism, and that reframed their self-regulation as being wasteful. It was as if they thought, “Why play by the rules if no one cares?” It poked a hole in their willpower fuel tanks, and when they sat in front of the cookies they couldn’t control their impulses as well as the others. Other studies show when you feel ostracized and unwanted, you can’t solve puzzles as well, you become less likely to cooperate, less motivated to work, more likely to drink and smoke and do other self-destructive things. Rejection obliterates self-control, and thus it seems it’s one of the many avenues toward a state of ego depletion.

So rejection and ostracism deplete our self-control.

I would fully agree with that.

We’ve all heard the term “emotional eater” and maybe there really is something to that!

So what do we do to try to prevent ego depletion?

The hard truth is…sometimes we can’t.

BUT we can try as often as possible to give ourselves some “me time” – to give ourselves some breaks so we can recharge and refill the self-control tank.

As the post says:

The only way to avoid this state of mind is to predict what might cause it in your own daily life and to avoid those things when you need the most volition. Modern life requires more self control than ever. Just knowing Reddit is out there beckoning your browser, or your iPad is waiting for your caress, or your smart phone is full of status updates, requires a level of impulse control unique to the human mind. Each abstained vagary strengthens the pull of the next. Remember too that you can dampen your executive functions in many ways, like by staying up all night for a few days, or downing a few alcoholic beverages, or holding your tongue at a family gathering, or resisting the pleas of a child for the umpteenth time. Having an important job can lead to decision fatigue which may lead to ego depletion simply because big decisions require lots of energy, literally, and when you slump you go passive. A long day of dealing with bullshit often leads to an evening of no-decision television in which you don’t even feel like switching the channel to get Kim Kardashian’s face out of your television, or sitting and watching a censoredJurassic Park between commercials even though you own a copy of the movie five feet away. If so, no big deal, but if you find yourself in control of someone’s parole or air traffic, or you need to lose 200 pounds, that’s when it’s time to plan ahead. If you want the most control over your own mind so that you can alter your responses to the world instead of giving in and doing what comes naturally, stay fresh. Take breaks. And until we understand just what ego depletion really is, don’t make important decisions on an empty stomach.

Have you ever suffered from ego depletion?

Posted on April 20, 2012, in Diet, Uhm? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m sorry you got negative comments! I think your blog is wonderful (obvs).

    I saw a similar article in the NY Times about decision fatigue a couple months ago and it really hit me. I think the reason that I’m able to stay on track with exercising (when my foot isn’t broken, grrrr) is something as simple as: I do it in the morning. It’s just part of my routine, and I’m up too early to think about whether I’m going to do it or not. And that works for all parts of my life. I’m much more productive if I have a schedule where I don’t have to exercise decisiveness or willpower to decide to do something.

    The article also said that we are not as good at making good decisions when we’re tired or hungry. Which is why dieting is so hard for most people–making a decision that requires willpower when one is hungry is very difficult. Which is what makes Paleo easier to stick to–it satisfies hunger.

    Also, a lot of eating disorder psychologists say that you shouldn’t cut out or demonize a group of food, because it messes with your thinking, but it actually makes decisions much easier. Am I going to eat that? No, not if it’s not Paleo.

    • Hi Linnea

      It actually wasn’t about the blog but THANK YOU! 🙂

      I agree that routine makes things easier. And I’m sorry to hear that your foot is broken!!

      I also think that it isn’t wrong to cut out food groups if you are cutting out unhealthy foods. There are always cheat days to indulge if you are REALLY craving something!

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