Ego-Depletion: 4 Effective Methods for Restoring Ego Strength

As the previous post showed, ego-depletion can have unfortunate effects on our judgment and decision-making. This post discusses some basic methods for conserving and restoring ego strength. Research so far hasn’t revealed any magic bullets. The most basic way to restore ego-strength is with rest and sleep. Apart from that, there are four solid methods to restore ego-strength: 1) raising positive mood, 2) thinking of a task as a fun activity, 3) using food, 4) and most importantly, adopting a non-limited mindset.

Positive Mood

Activities that raise positive mood will help restore ego strength. One study found that participants who watched a comedy or received a surprise gift performed much better on self-control tasks than other ego-depleted participants who didn’t have their positive mood raised.[1]

Fun

One way to conserve your ego-strength is to think about decisions that you have to make as a fun activity. The more fun people feel, the less drained they will be.

A 2011 study by Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski tested this idea.[2] They asked people to choose among similar products, such as two similar computers which differed only on a few attributes (e.g. RAM or processor speed). Such tasks are usually tedious. However, some subjects had the task framed as fun; their instructions had one additional sentence in the instructions: “The first study is a fun study involving hypothetical choices in several product categories.” This extra sentence made a noticeable difference and these subjects persisted longer than others did in evaluating the products.

Food

Early studies on ego-depletion suggested that the whole mechanism of ego-depletion is based on glucose: self-control or decision-making uses up glucose and after a while the shortage of glucose leads to ego-depletion. These studies found, for example, that ego-depletion could be reversed if people drank lemonade with sugar during challenging tasks.[3] This suggested that effortful thinking uses up glucose.

Some studies published in recent years show that this understanding is at least partially flawed.[4] These studies show that merely rinsing one’s mouth with a glucose drink is enough to strengthen self-control. In these studies, participants did not swallow the drink; merely rinsing the mouth also did not increase blood glucose.

The likely explanation is that carbohydrates, even if merely sensed and not swallowed, activate dopamine pathways in striatum, a brain region associated with rewards. So carbohydrates probably reverse ego-depletion because they increase people’s motivation and not because of their metabolic effects. Whatever is the real mechanism, it is clear that food effectively restores ego-strength.

So food is crucial for restoring ego strength, and carbohydrates play the leading role. When it comes to carbohydrates, there are two basic types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates (monosacharides and dissacharides) are the ones that normally taste sweet and they are typically found in fruits, honey, or sucrose (table sugar). Complex carbs are those that don’t taste sweet; they are the ones found in potatoes, yams, rice, and various other grains, including wheat and all of its flour products.

Simple Carbs for Ego Strength. If glucose drinks reduce ego-depletion because they activate brain reward circuits, then simple carbohydrates should work better because their sweet taste is more rewarding. In short, it means that probably it is best to use foods that get their sweetness from fruits, honey, or table sugar. Yet, don’t rely on foods that get their sweet taste from artificial sweeteners—studies mentioned just above found that mouth rinses with artificial sweeteners had no effect.

Small Meals. Small meals eaten more often would probably work better because they would activate the brain reward centers more often, but it is best to experiment to see what works for you.

Mindset

Finally, a sweeping method to conserve ego-strength may be to reject the whole idea of ego-depletion, i.e. that self-control is a limited resource. A 2010 study by Veronika Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton was the first in this line of research.[5] Their basic argument is that people hold different implicit theories about self-control. Some people implicitly believe that self-control is a limited resource. On the other hand, other people believe that self-control is a non-limited resource, so engaging in strenuous tasks will not use up their self-control.

In one of their experiments, some participants were swayed to adopt a limited resource theory by having to complete a biased questionnaire with statements such as “Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel tired such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task.” Other participants were swayed to adopt a non-limited resource theory through statements such as “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.” As the researchers predicted, those who believed the non-limited resource theory performed noticeably better, making fewer mistakes on depleting tasks.

This research suggests that we can at least mitigate ego-depletion, if not completely avoid it, by believing that our willpower and self-control is unlimited. (To be sure, this line of research on ego-depletion is not definitive, and there are some controversies as to how much exactly the mindset can eliminate ego-depletion.)

Notes

[1] Dianne M. Tice, Roy F. Baumeister, Dikla Shmueli, Mark Muraven, Restoring the Self: Positive Affect Helps Improve Self-Regulation Following Ego Depletion, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43, 379–384 (2007)

[2] Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski, Work or Fun? How Task Construal and Completion Influence Regulatory Behavior, Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 967-983 (2011)

[3] Matthew T. Gailliot, Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan DeWall, Jon K. Maner, E. Ashby Plant, Dianne M. Tice, Lauren E. Brewer, and Brandon J. Schmeichel, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325–336 (2007).

[4] Daniel C. Molden, Chin Ming Hui, Abigail A. Scholer, Brian P. Meier, Eric E. Noreen, Paul R. D’Agostino and Valerie Martin, Motivational Versus Metabolic Effects of Carbohydrates on Self-Control, Psychological Science, 23, 1137-1144 (2012); Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis, “The Sweet Taste of Success: The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 28-42 (2013)

[5] Veronika Job, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton, Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation, Psychological Science, 21, 1686 –1693 (2010).