Willpower and Ego-Depletion: Could It Be Wrong?
We commonly think of willpower like a muscle.
The more mentally we tax ourselves throughout the day, the less self-control we have.
But what if I told you that willpower may not function like this at all?
A new study finds that people from India have “reverse ego-depletion.” That is they have more self-control when completing challenging mental tasks.
Question What You Think About Willpower
For years, the “willpower is like a muscle” analogy has been synonymous with self-control.
It’s largely based on the theory of ego-depletion, which states that the more we exert mental effort throughout the day, the weaker our self-control.
But current research has found holes and now questions this theory. The most recent example being published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The authors argue that their results,
can be viewed as casting further doubt on claims that ego-depletion is a pan-cultural phenomenon rooted in human biology…
The study shows how a person’s culture or beliefs might affect how they respond to mental exertion. The researchers go on to say their study,
…instead supports the argument that motivational factors play a crucial role in determining how strenuous tasks influence subsequent self-control exertion.
The researchers tested people from India, Switzerland, and the US over a series of four experiments.
The setup followed a typical ego-depletion scenario. Individuals would perform an initial 10 minute task. After a short period of time they would proceed to complete a second task.
When people from the US were given a tough initial task, as you might expect, would show worse performance on follow-up tasks.
However, the reverse was true for participants from India. When given a mentally challenging task initially, they would go on to perform better in the following task. In essence, reverse ego-depletion.
What Caused the Reverse Ego-Depletion?
The researchers believe that the Indian ideas and beliefs surrounding challenging tasks is what made the difference. It’s why they conducted the experiments in the first place. To see if culture would have an effect on how we behave.
Some of these culture differences can be seen in education. Children in India generally spend more time in the classroom and on their studies.
Younger generations are also encouraged to pursue activities that require concentration, such as meditation or reading.
The study shows that our Western idea of how self-control functions isn’t a universal fact. It’s evidence that motivation and culture affect our self-control.
Most importantly, what we believe about self-control might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think tough mental tasks can drain your willpower, then it will.
This was also shown in the study. Those who believed more strongly that expending mental effort was energizing, the stronger the reverse ego-depletion effect was.
Can You Change Your Beliefs About Willpower?
Naturally, you might be asking yourself if you can change your underlying beliefs about willpower. And there’s evidence that you can.
The last experiment the researchers performed in the study had the people from different cultures read one of two passages. One about the depletion effect of mental effort and the other about how mental tasks are energizing. Similar to previous willpower experiments they then went on to complete two tasks.
The reverse ego-depletion effect was seen for those who read the information about mental effort being energizing. So it appears that, at least in the short term, beliefs about willpower can be altered. Although I would suspect long-term changes would probably require more than this.
It should be noted that at least one other piece of research has also been shown to successfully alter willpower beliefs. Carol Dweck, researcher and author of Mindset, along with colleagues also showed that manipulating people’s underlying beliefs could be successful.
It seems the more we study willpower, the more complex and nuanced it becomes. It doesn’t help that many of the experiments were done in a lab environment. In the United States.
It’s not that hundreds of studies on willpower are outright wrong. But we haven’t gotten the whole picture, and our understanding is incomplete.
There are plenty of reasons to rethink what you know about willpower. And the key to getting more self-control may simply be changing what you think you know.