Willpower Is Not a Limited Resource
You come home after a long day of work and immediately curl up on the couch for a few episodes of the latest Netflix craze. As you watch, you’re simultaneously scrolling through Twitter on your phone and digging into a bag of potato chips, even though your resolution was to eat healthier. You look around and see that the garbage needs to be taken out, the laundry needs to be folded, and your child’s toys are strewn across the living room floor. The list of productive things you could be doing seem endless, yet you can’t seem to find the willpower to get started.
Sound familiar? This is called ego depletion, the theory that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control.
Ego depletion would seem to explain your post-work defeat — after focusing all day, you’re just tapped out. But some research suggests that we’ve been thinking about willpower all wrong, and the theory of ego depletion isn’t true. Even worse, holding onto the idea that willpower is a finite resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.
The evidence against ego depletion comes from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her team wanted to see how people reacted when they were fatigued. After putting participants through a demanding task, the researchers asked them to drink sugary lemonade for an energy boost, and then evaluated how they reacted. And while the sugar did give a boost to the people who believed their willpower had been exhausted, it had no effect on those who didn’t see willpower as a finite resource.
If Dweck’s conclusions are correct, that means that ego depletion is essentially caused by self-defeating thoughts and not by any biological limitation. It’s an idea that makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist.
Other research illustrates the power of this effect. A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that individuals who believed they were powerless to…