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  1. Overcoming Ego Depletion and Improving Self‑Control
  2. The strength model of self-control compares self-regulatory abilities to a muscle, which
  3. provides a theoretical framework and a subsequent body of research that can largely
  4. answer these questions. Like a muscle, self-control can become depleted with intense use.
  5. This is not to say that the entirety of the limited resource can be used up on a 10-minute
  6. laboratory activity—that would not make it a very adaptive trait after all—but rather
  7. that the body and brain seek to conserve it as per our goals and motivations. For example,
  8. most 22-year-old girls cannot deadlift more than 100 pounds, yet in 2012, one young
  9. woman in Virginia lifted up an entire BMW to free her beloved father from under it
  10. (Newcomb, 2012). This is one of many examples that highlights how individuals can use
  11. their full physical strength under extreme conditions; however, in general, human bodies
  12. send signals to refrain from such use. Likewise, with acute cues and motivators, people
  13. can overcome their self-control depletion. Self-control abilities also resemble a muscle in
  14. that they can be strengthened over time with practice and exercise. Next we outline how
  15. to offset the detrimental effects of ego depletion in the short term and how to improve
  16. one’s self-control strength over time.
  17. Offsetting Depletion in the Short Term
  18. Research has furnished multiple ways to motivate people to continue exerting self-control
  19. and to replenish somewhat the resource itself. Usually, these studies involve the dual-task
  20. paradigm—one self-control task followed by another, unrelated one—interrupted by or
  21. following another manipulation, which serves as the motivator or refresher. A perennial
  22. theoretical question is whether these factors actually replenish the resource, thus restoring self-control to its full powers, or merely encourage the person to allocate and expend
  23. more resources despite having already expended some.
  24. Positive Affect
  25. Feeling good has been shown to fend off depletion effects (Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, &
  26. Muraven, 2007). Receiving a small gift or watching a comedy video offsets the effects
  27. of depletion. Similarly, depleted smokers who watched a comedy video smoked less than
  28. their depleted counterparts who did not get a boost in positive affect (Shmueli & Prochaska, 2012). Even implicit positive emotion sparked by subliminal positive messages
  29. counteracted depletion (Ren, Hu, Zhang, & Huang, 2010).
  30. Religion
  31. Prayer before using self-control to restrict emotional reactions to a funny video improved
  32. performance on the Stroop task, for example (Friese & Wänke, 2014). Likewise, reading words related to religiosity, such as divine or God, led to resistance against depletion
  33. effects for those who had to use self-control on a prior task and led to better baseline
  34. Self‑Control and Ego Depletion 51
  35. self-control performance among those who were not depleted (Rounding, Lee, Jacobson,
  36. & Ji, 2012).
  37. Self‑Affirmation
  38. Bringing to mind the self and its ideals has been shown to neutralize depletion effects. For
  39. example, thinking of the values most important to oneself or engaging in self-affirmation
  40. eliminated the depleting effects resulting from a challenging writing task or stifling emotional reactions (Schmeichel & Vohs, 2009). Tapping into naturalistic use of self-control,
  41. to monitor and edit emotions, thoughts, and behavior to meet a standard, researchers
  42. showed that keeping in mind one’s own standards counteracts depletion (Wan & Sternthal, 2008). Persons who had to use self-control on a prior activity and completed a
  43. phrase-making task with the word I performed better than those who never referred to
  44. the self (Alberts, Martijn & de Vries, 2011).
  45. Agency
  46. Activation of agentic responses can counteract depletion, emphasizing that motivations
  47. interact with self-control expenditures. Prompting people to take responsibility for their
  48. actions and to feel autonomous can stave off depletion effects, for instance (Muraven,
  49. Gagné, & Rosman, 2008). Reading an inspiring story of an athlete who overcame many
  50. obstacles to become a world record holder also does so (Martijn et al., 2007). Having
  51. participants make statements related to perseverance, (e.g., “He keeps going”) led to
  52. better physical stamina on the handgrip task after a difficult puzzle task (Alberts et al.,
  53. 2007). Within the same study, researchers provided some participants with a cue of a
  54. man in a business suit and the words “You can do it.” These participants fared better in
  55. physical exertion after an attention control task than did nondepleted participants.
  56. Power
  57. A position of leadership and power over a subordinate during a laboratory activity led
  58. to better performance on a self-control task and counteracted the effects of depletion
  59. (DeWall, Baumeister, Mead, & Vohs, 2011). However, when participants were presented
  60. with an additional test for which they had not planned, they performed worse and showed
  61. deficits in self-control abilities. This indicates that the antidepletion effects of power are
  62. somewhat short-lived and that situational incentives encourage persons to expend diminishing resources rather than conserve them.
  63. Construal Level
  64. Thinking about local, specific, and tangential attributes of a situation comprise low-level
  65. construals, whereas attending to superordinate, global, and primary aspects of a situation
  66. comprise high-level construals. As mentioned earlier, self-control depletion diminishes
  67. top-down control, which is evident in a shift toward low-level construals (Bruyneel &
  68. DeWitte, 2012; Wan & Agrawal, 2011). Consistent with low-level construal, time seems
  69. to move more slowly after having used self-control resources (Vohs & Schmeichel, 2003).
  70. It should be the case, then, that depletion effects can be offset by high-level construals.
  71. 52 BASIC REGULATORY PROCESSES
  72. And this is the case: Several studies have shown that inducing high-level construals by
  73. asking why questions rather than how questions or instructing participants to generate
  74. superordinate category labels improved self-control in both depleted and nondepleted
  75. participants (Fujita, Trope, Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006).
  76. Money
  77. Cues that remind people of money, such as income-related phrases, narratives about
  78. growing up wealthy, or handling play money, activate proactive responses and goal pursuit (Vohs, Mead, & Goode, 2006). This occurs even when the money is not directly
  79. related to the task at hand or presented as a reward. Another study showed that unscrambling money-related phrases led to better performance on the Stroop task among depleted
  80. participants (Boucher & Kofos, 2012).
  81. Beliefs about Self‑Control
  82. Whether one believes that self-control is limited affects how well one does on self-control
  83. tasks. Personal theories about self-control resources can be manipulated, for example,
  84. with a questionnaire highlighting either a limited-resource model (e.g., “Working on a
  85. strenuous mental task can make you feel tired, such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task”) or a nonlimited-resource model (e.g., “Sometimes, working on a
  86. strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities”;
  87. Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010). Both preexisting and manipulated implicit theories about
  88. self-control resources have been found to affect self-control outcomes, including Stroop
  89. task performance, intelligence quotient test problems, and goal pursuit (Job et al., 2010;
  90. see also Martijn, Tenbült, Merckelbach, Dreezens, & de Vries, 2002).
  91. Planning
  92. Efficient planning diminishes the need to make new decisions at every step of a challenging process and provides a set of custom heuristics that frees up self-control resources.
  93. For instance, in one set of studies, unless participants formed implementation intentions
  94. (simple plans in the form of “If X, then I do Y”; Gollwitzer, 1999), an initial self-control
  95. task led to deficits in a second self-control task (Webb & Sheeran, 2003). Particularly,
  96. participants made implementation intentions to prepare for the Stroop task, then showed
  97. less depletion on a second task. In a follow-up study, implementation intentions helped
  98. participants perform well on the Stroop task after an initial depleting task that was done
  99. without implementation intentions.
  100. Action Orientation
  101. People who take initiative to respond to demanding situations decisively and in order to
  102. promote change, or are action-oriented, fare better on tasks requiring self-control after
  103. a depleting task than those who are more preoccupied, hesitant, and prefer to maintain
  104. the status quo, or are state-oriented (Gröpel, Baumeister, & Beckmann, 2014). Actionoriented participants performed better than state-oriented people on an attention task
  105. after physical exercise and were better able to distinguish flashes of light as discreet rather
  106. Self‑Control and Ego Depletion 53
  107. than a seemingly constant light, even when the flash rate was faster. The rate at which
  108. light flashes occur so quickly that one sees them as a single light is known as the critical
  109. fusion frequency. A third study showed that action-oriented participants also performed
  110. better than state-oriented people on the Stroop task after completing a difficult sensorimotor task. Presumably, action-oriented people fared so well because they are better
  111. at self-motivating (Kuhl, 1994). Perhaps cultivating an action-oriented drive or personal
  112. motivation could benefit people in overcoming depletion effects. However, it should be
  113. noted that some depletion research indicates that although conserving resources on an
  114. initial task and autonomous motivation allows people to stave off depletion effects in the
  115. short run (e.g., on a second self-control task), these factors do not counter depletion in
  116. the longer run (e.g., on a third or fourth task that requires self-control) (Graham, Bray,
  117. & Ginis, 2014).
  118. Rest and Glucose
  119. The situational cues and manipulations covered so far in this section likely motivate
  120. people to continue expending self-control resources as opposed to actually replenishing
  121. or increasing the resource. On the other hand, evidence suggests that both rest and consumption of glucose (a simple sugar) somewhat restore self-control resources after depletion. In a series of studies, Gailliot, Baumeister, and colleagues (2007) provided evidence
  122. that low levels of blood glucose predicted poor performance at self-control, whereas getting a dose of glucose helped to counteract the effects of depletion. (That investigation
  123. also reported that glucose levels decreased from before to after exerting self-control, but
  124. that finding has not been replicated reliably.) Still, for our present purposes, the key point
  125. is that ingesting glucose counteracts many effects of depletion. If glucose is indeed part
  126. of the resource involved in self-control, then consuming some glucose may well actually
  127. replenish it.
  128. Resting after using self-control on one task and before using it on another task has
  129. been shown to neutralize the effects of ego depletion. For example, participants in one
  130. study were asked to stand on one leg and count down from 2,000 by sevens, an extremely
  131. taxing activity. Before performing the handgrip task, participants took a break, during
  132. which they answered easy questions on filler questionnaires. Those who were given a
  133. 10-minute break, as opposed to just a 1- or 3-minute break, performed just as well as
  134. nondepleted participants on the second task, suggesting that the break restored some selfcontrol resources (Tyler & Burns, 2009).
  135. How can people use these findings to fight off depletion in everyday life? There are
  136. multiple answers. Keeping in mind what is important—religion, values, and goals—and
  137. reminding oneself, “You can do it,” to activate agentic responses may serve to counteract
  138. depletion effects. Although we hope that this chapter has outlined the limited nature of
  139. self-control, we also acknowledge that beliefs about self-control abilities as unlimited
  140. counteract depletion effects. Likewise, thinking about why rather than how, or thinking
  141. in higher-level construals, can combat self-control depletion. Resting or consuming glucose between activities that require self-control seems to replenish this resource.
  142. If one feels depleted at the end of the day but knows it would be better to go to the
  143. gym, several things can be done to reenergize self-control. First, one can think, “Why
  144. should I work out?” Probably the answer is “to be healthy and fit and to live longer,”
  145. which highlights long-term goals and helps one to think in higher-level construals.
  146. 54 BASIC REGULATORY PROCESSES
  147. Second, taking a 10-minute break before leaving work and heading to the gym or drinking a lemonade can refresh self-control stores. Self-affirmation may also highlight agentic
  148. abilities and prompt some positive affect. Then, go work out!
  149. Strengthening Self-Control in the Long Term
  150. Physical exertion, like use of self-control, leads to exhaustion and impairment in subsequent activities that also require strength. However, in the long run, both physical exertion, such as exercise, and practicing self-control lead to increased strength and stamina.
  151. Additionally, making plans to follow in potentially difficult future scenarios decreases
  152. the number of decisions that must be made or impulses that must be overridden at that
  153. time, saving self-control resources.
  154. Exercise
  155. Because self-control is thought to be a domain-general resource, practicing self-control
  156. in one domain should lead to improvements on different tasks and in other domains.
  157. Indeed, practicing standing up straight to improve one’s posture, for example, can lead
  158. to improvements on the handgrip task (Muraven, Baumeister, & Tice, 1999). Self-control
  159. abilities can be promoted by monitoring and bettering study habits or financial decisions,
  160. or by exercising regularly, findings which were substantiated by a laboratory test that measured visual tracking in the face of distraction (Oaten & Cheng, 2006b). Another study
  161. sought to increase self-control strength by having participants perform self-regulatory
  162. exercises, such as switching to their nondominant hand for several routine activities and
  163. changing their speaking habits (e.g., not swearing). Afterward, in a laboratory test, these
  164. people showed less depletion after overcoming prejudicial stereotyping than did people
  165. who had not performed these exercises (Gailliot, Plant, Butz, & Baumeister, 2007).
  166. Self-control training can even help people quit addictive behaviors. Two weeks of
  167. resisting sweets or regularly squeezing a handgrip doubled smokers’ quitting success rate
  168. relative to those who did not practice self-control or just did simple math problems for 2
  169. weeks (Muraven, 2010). Self-control practice can lead to improvements in romantic relationships. Simple and regular application of self-control to use one’s nondominant hand
  170. or avoid abbreviations and curse words for 2 weeks improved control over inclinations
  171. to respond with physical aggression to one’s partner’s provoking behavior (Finkel et al.,
  172. 2009).
  173. Habits
  174. As we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, habits are highly automatic responses
  175. and therefore require and deplete less self-control than overriding impulses and deliberate
  176. action. Accordingly, habits also emerge more often when people are depleted (Neal et al.,
  177. 2013). Good habits, then, serve to counteract negative effects of depletion insofar as they
  178. themselves are not depleting, and even when depleted, one can rely on them. Habitually
  179. going to the gym will make it easier to do it more often and consistently over time. Thus,
  180. many longitudinal studies have shown long-term improvements in self-control abilities as
  181. a function of habitual and scheduled rather than random self-regulatory exercises.
  182. Self‑Control and Ego Depletion 55
  183. Indeed, one of the recent shifts in self-regulation theory has been to propose that
  184. effective self-regulation operates through habits or habitual avoidance of conflict. People
  185. with good self-control do not necessarily resist temptations and desires more often or
  186. more effectively than others (Hofmann, Baumeister, Förster, & Vohs, 2012). Rather, they
  187. seem to set up their lives to be less exposed to temptations (see de Ridder et al., 2012;
  188. Hoffman, Luhmann, Fisher, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2014).
  189. That exercises in one domain, such as using one’s nondominant hand, can lead to
  190. significant improvements in regulation of a seemingly irrelevant domain underscores not
  191. only the importance of self-control in meeting personal and social standards but also the
  192. importance of practicing it. Habitually practicing self-control—making the bed every
  193. morning, doing the dishes right after use, giving up sweets, or standing up straight—can
  194. drive improvements in your self-control in other areas of life. Packing a glucose drink in
  195. advance and planning exactly what time to turn off one’s computer to end the work day
  196. and when, how to get to the gym, and which workouts to do can lead to fewer conflicts
  197. or temptations while trying to reach a fitness goal, for example. This also reduces the
  198. number of decisions that must be made at the time of the workout. Planning, then, will
  199. not only make it easier to go to the gym again in the future but also will have beneficial
  200. effects in other applications of self-control, such as in quitting smoking, eating more
  201. healthfully, staying calm during an argument, or resisting that impulse purchase.
  202. Conclusion
  203. Within this chapter, we have defined self-control, outlined myriad ego depletion findings,
  204. and described how one can improve one’s self-regulatory powers over time. Self-control,
  205. the ability to alter one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, or to override impulses and
  206. habits, allows people to monitor and regulate themselves to meet expectations. Ego depletion refers to a state of diminished self-control resources, when one cannot or does not
  207. successfully implement further control. Numerous studies have shown that self-control
  208. is not only necessary for success in a multitude of domains but also that its depletion can
  209. lead to deficits in these domains.
  210. Loss of top-down control, disinhibition, and passivity that result from self-control
  211. depletion underlie breakdowns in deliberate cognition and decision making, impulse and
  212. emotion regulation, dieting and exercise, substance use restriction, and control over risky
  213. behavior. When one is ego depleted, deliberate and controlled processes become more
  214. difficult, leaving one to rely on lower-level processing. Subsequent decision making and
  215. problem solving are vulnerable to the cognitive errors of intuitive thinking, particularly
  216. overdependence on heuristics. Concealing one’s emotions or overriding one’s impulses
  217. use self-control. Furthermore, when self-control resources are low, emotions can become
  218. intensified. Self-control goes hand in hand with a healthy lifestyle: Whether resisting
  219. sweets or willing oneself to go to the gym, one can rely on self-control.
  220. Recent theories posit that self-control plays a role in all stages of addiction. Consistently supported is the finding that self-control is key to quitting addictive substances and
  221. maintaining sobriety. Trait and state self-control predict how likely people are to engage
  222. in risky and costly behaviors such as unsafe sex, overspending, gambling, and even crime.
  223. Although these studies suggest that self-control is limited and its deficits negatively affect
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