Career DevelopmentProductivity

We Have Misunderstood Willpower for Decades

Since the late 1990s, much of the discussion about willpower has centered around the idea of “ego depletion.” This concept says that humans have a finite amount of mental energy to dedicate to grueling tasks, and once that energy depletes, people succumb to indulgences and slacking off, etc. But as Nir Eyal explains for Harvard Business Review, ego depletion could actually be a bunch of baloney.

The Power Is Yours

The research that originally gave way to ego depletion came by way of an experiment at Case Western Reserve University. People waited in a room with two plates of food. One plate had cookies, and the other had radishes. People were only allowed to select and eat from one plate. Following that, participants were given a test that, unbeknownst to them, was impossible to solve. The researchers found that people who ate radishes (and had theoretically already expended willpower by not eating cookies) gave up on the puzzle more than twice as fast as the cookie eaters. This is the oddball experiment that gave way to ego depletion.

Myriad experiments since then have also vouched for the existence of ego depletion. But a University of Miami graduate student in 2010 conducted analysis of nearly 200 of these experiments and found that there was a “publication bias.” In other words, data that contradicted the existence of ego depletion was simply excluded. Granted, this is not an instant nail in the coffin to the concept, but it raises cause for concern.

Eyal further discusses parts of the concept that actually can be thrown out the window:

… some of the more magical aspects of the theory, such as that sugar acts as a willpower juicer, have been fully debunked. For one, the sugar from a quick sip of lemonade can’t enter the bloodstream fast enough to account for any boost in mental energy. Moreover, brain experts have known for quite some time that the brain does not consume more blood sugar when working on difficult tasks. The brain is an organ, not a muscle, and thus does not consume extra energy the way a muscle would. Your brain uses the same number of calories per waking minute whether you’re working on calculus equations or watching cat videos.

Research published in 2013 suggests that the only thing dictating if ego depletion actually takes place is whether the person believes in its existence in the first place. Or in other words, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, perhaps the best way to see if ego depletion can be disproven is to just stop talking about it in the workplace for a while. If we work under the assumption that the sky is the limit for how much hard work we can accomplish in a given day, we might prove ourselves right.

You can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2016/11/have-we-been-thinking-about-willpower-the-wrong-way-for-30-years

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