The Way You Think About Willpower Is Hurting You
Not so long ago, my post-work routine looked like this: After a particularly grueling day, I’d sit on the couch and veg for hours, doing my version of “Netflix and chill,” which meant keeping company with a cold pint of ice cream. I knew the ice cream, and the sitting, were probably a bad idea, but I told myself this was my well-deserved “reward” for working so hard.
Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: it’s called “ego depletion.” The theory is 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. This theory would seem to perfectly explain my after-work indulgences.
But new studies suggest that we’ve been thinking about willpower all wrong, and that the theory of ego depletion isn’t true. Even worse, holding on to the idea that willpower is a limited resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.
Dawn of the Ego-Depletion Myth
One of the most pervasive bits of folk psychology may be the belief that self-control is somehow “spent.” The idea received scientific support in the late 1990s, when the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University put it to the test, conducting an experiment that has since been cited over three thousand times by their academic pe