Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ego Depletion Theory And Its Cultural Context

When I first learned about it, I really liked the theory of ego depletion. You know this theory, right? The idea is that you only have a certain amount of willpower. If you use a lot of willpower keeping yourself away from cookies, you'll run out, and you won't have enough left over to make yourself do other things you don't want to do or refrain from things you want to stop doing. In one classic study, people who had to ignore cookies to eat radishes then spent less time later working on math puzzles.

I liked the theory for two reasons. First, it corresponds loosely to my experience as a human. If I have to do something difficult, I know to do it in the morning, or at least when I'm rested and well-fed. Too many difficult decisions and I get bad at making difficult decisions. Self-control really does feel like something you move around from thing to thing: quit smoking, and your drinking goes up; grade more papers and you eat more cookies; go to the gym more and you spend more on cute gym clothes.

Second, I appreciate the goofy metaphor associated with the theory, that "the active self is a limited resource." I don't think my "will" is "me," but this is a mildly amusing thing to say. "Uh-oh! I made myself tidy up, and now -- I'm going to run out of myself."

But I also had immediate doubts about the whole framework for the theory. It's never seemed right to me to say that "willpower" is the central issue. Why not just say that making yourself do things you don't want to do makes you feel harassed and annoyed, and when you're harassed and annoyed you're like, "Fuck it, who cares?" Why not talk about moods? Why not talk about the life force? The whole "willpower" part of it -- why did that have to be in there at all?

I also have to question the intuitive plausibility of the part of the theory that says that willpower, like a muscle, can be strengthened through practice. The idea here is that if you use your willpower to make yourself do things, you get better at using your willpower to make yourself do things.

In one sense, I get how this seems true: there's a way in which getting your life together and developing regular habits makes you more able to get your life together and develop regular habits. But there's a deeper sense in which this seems wildly false. Whether you continue getting your life together or whether it all comes crashing down in a nightmare of chaos seems to have nothing to do with built up willpower and everything to do with your immediate environment and the other things going on in your life.

Just as the theory of ego depletion was on the verge of becoming firmly entrenched in psychology, doubts have arisen. According to this recent article in Slate, other scientists have had trouble replicating the results of the original experiments. Various kinds of problems and difficulties have been pointed out, including the possibility that someone's "beliefs and mindset" could affect their willpower.

The Slate article puts the whole episode in the context of the "reproducibility crisis" happening in psychology. I don't know a lot about this crisis, but I have to say that would not be surprising to me to learn that many of the basic ideas in psychology are unstable or off the mark in other ways. I mean, people are complicated, and the way we experience and talk about things is highly influenced by complex social and cultural factors. These factors are embedded in a way of seeing the world. It's hardly surprising to think that the effects we see in experiments are produced by complex things working together, and that we only have the loosest grasp of what is going on, so that tiny changes in the set up bring about large changes in results.

I mean, from the philosophical point of view, even the concept of willpower is contested. Sure, you can say that a person who judges X best and does Y had a failure of willpower. Or you can say, neo-Socratically, that the person who does Y must have regarded Y as the thing to do, and so they were mistaken in thinking X best -- then "willpower" wouldn't refer to anything. You could describe any of the experiments this second way. Maybe the person who eats more cookies sees the cookies in a different light, and so eats them. Maybe the person who works less hard on the math puzzles sees the puzzles as more pointless and dull than they did before.

Then it wouldn't be a failure of willpower, but rather a halo cookie effect, or a this-is-boring effect. If the relevant behavior can be described using a range of different concepts that don't even appeal to "willpower," it's not surprising that when you tweak the study design things get complicated.

Where all of this matters most, of course, is in the way that laying our conceptual understanding onto a set of behaviors, seeing a pattern, and thinking we've got hold of "reality" leads into very dangerous territory. As the Slate article explains, the ego depletion theory supports all kinds of ideas about "grit" and building "resilience" that support very specific ideologies -- the kind of ideologies that get you a million dollars in funding from the Templeton Foundation.

If you think about it for even a minute, you can see how alternative frameworks for the behavior pattern in question lead in different directions. If it's all about how hard it is to do things when you're harassed and annoyed, and not about willpower -- well, there's nothing more harassing and annoying than poverty, and there's nothing that building up resilience and grit is going to do about that.

Nothing drives me crazy like seeing comfortable middle class people criticize poor people for choosing to eat fast food or buy expensive sneakers or whatever. In addition to the obvious fact that everyone has their pleasures, so please fuck off, there's also the fact that if you haven't been poor, you don't know how constantly harassing and annoying it is. Sometimes, it's so harassing and annoying you can't make yourself do anything. Yes, it might be the same mechanisms that make it hard to do math puzzles after not eating cookies. But it also might have nothing to do with willpower at all.


Nick Byrd said...

I share a lot of your thoughts. And I too have been suspicious of the theory since I read the Baumeister et al 1998 paper.

I am currently inclined to think that will-power, whether it is a real thing or just a term that refers to a suite of things, is best captured by a causal network of variables; not a resource (or a muscle for that matter). The causal network account of willpower would capture what was good about the ego depletion account without be so narrow in scope. Also, it would provide a rationale to support the points you make about poverty and willpower in the final paragraph. And it would, in general, provide an empirically-oriented way of responding to all sorts of tropes about poverty, work ethic, and the like.

Thanks for sharing.

(Apologies for typographical errors.)

Janet Vickers said...

People criticizing poor people drives me crazy too. I propose that another political party could cover this. The Party could be named "What Other People Should Do" and members could join for say $100 then gather to write policies on what other people should do, and those who are in other political parties like Conservative, Liberal or NDP who have invested all their willpower on what other people should do - could join together where they feel most useful.