Ego Depletion: Why Our Willpower Is Completely Determined By Our Environment

by Alyssa Chodkowski

Ego depletion infers that a person's willpower has a threshold; you will practice self-control when making decisions ONLY to a certain point. It suggests that your body and mind have a self-control reserve, just like a gas tank. When that gas tank is empty, you are no longer going to maintain that same level of control.

That diet you were working so hard to maintain was instantly negated by your lack of willpower when you decided to eat a whole sleeve of Oreos. That man you were trying so hard to get over? You texted him after three shots of tequila.

Why do you keep doing this? The answer is simple: ego depletion.

According to psychologists, self-preservation, like anything else, has a capacity. Once you reach that threshold, you are more susceptible to making poor decisions. A study done at Case Western Reserve University is a perfect example of this. The study included several tests regarding the role of self-constraint, emotional behaviors and ego depletion.

Participants of the one study were put in a situation where they had radishes and chocolates in front of them. The participants either were told to eat a portion of the radishes, chocolates or nothing. It was noted that some of the participants were looking longingly at the chocolate, but all followed the instructions that they were given. After the consumption portion of the test, participants were given a puzzle to complete.

The study concluded that those who had resisted the temptation of the chocolate had given up more easily on the puzzle, as they had already reached a level of frustration.

Putting The Theory To The Test

In order to test the theory of ego depletion and the limits of my own willpower, I decided to give up something and see how long I could endure the task.

So, after much debate, I decided to forfeit the one thing mankind cannot live without. It's the steam-powering engine of America's work force, the one and only caffienated crutch that fills our cups every morning: coffee. I decidedly, yet unwillingly, gave up coffee and will give you a brief synopsis of my findings.

It turns out, my ego depletion threshold is less than or equal to three days. Even though three days without coffee was considrered an achievement in my book, in the grand scheme of things, not so much.

I was high and mighty on the first day, living sans coffee without remorse. I didn't even pause to take a second glance at my coworker's steaming traveler mug.

The second day, however, was more of a struggle. I woke up groggy and perturbed at my iPhone's resonating marimba alarm going off for the 38th time. I felt like a lead balloon as I heaved myself out of bed and prepared for the day. As coworkers walked by my cubicle, the aroma of coffee beans filled the air and I felt myself looking longingly at my desk where my own cup used to reside. Still on the second day, I did not yield.

On the third day, however, I felt like death. It took some convincing to even get myself out of bed, as I had already disabled my alarm. I arrived at work late and dutifully trudged to my desk, trying desperately to avoid anyone with coffee in his or her hand. I was at my desk, prying my eyes open and trying to stay awake, when I heard someone clearing their throat outside of my cube.

"Ahem." Startled, I spun my chair around to find my coworker standing there expectantly. "Hey, a couple of us are going to get coffee downstairs, want to come?" he asked.

"NO!" I somewhat shouted, startling him slightly. My internal struggle must have been more apparent than my response, because he paused and asked, "Are you sure?"

No. No, I'm not sure, I thought. I am tired. I'm not sure how I'm going to make it through the day. I have so much to do. I just ... want ... a little coffee. A little wouldn't hurt would it?

At that moment, I caved. My exhausted self could not fight anymore and I joined my coworker to get coffee, throwing in the towel and submitting to my depleted ego.

What I Found Out:

It turns out that both studies go hand-in-hand. The situational pressures, emotional stresses and environments that we put ourselves in pretty much allow our egos to deplete.

Whether it be eating a whole sleeve of Oreos, texting your ex or enjoying your daily cup of coffee, your willpower is constantly being tested.

Instead of pushing your limits and setting unobtainable goals that often lead to ego depletion, finding that middle ground is key.

Speaking of grounds, I think I'll go get a cup of coffee now.

Photo via We Heart It