The Ego Depletion Theory: Are There Limited Mental Resources?

The ego exhaustion theory suggests that there is a state of psychic energy exhaustion so important, that it can interfere with self-regulatory capacity, at least temporarily.

Among other things, this theory allowed us to answer questions such as: why is it more difficult to complete a task after being exposed to wear and tear or mental conflict? What are the events that generate ego exhaustion? Do efforts to contain behavior lead to a decrease in our self-regulation?

Through numerous studies, the exhaustion model has made it possible to analyze the elements involved in our ability to make decisions and perform tasks that involve mental effort. In this article we will see what the above consists of and through what studies it was explained, as well as some manifestations of this psychological phenomenon in everyday life.

    Ego Depletion Theory: Is Self-Regulation Limited?

    One of the subjects most studied by psychology has been self-regulation, seen as the capacity of the “self” to modify its own behavior. This capability is very useful in adaptive terms because allows us to adjust our actions to the requirements of the environment.

    In this sense, self-regulation involves a set of decisions that we make to contain an impulse or behavior. In other words, there is an important component of “will”, which in turn depends on the ability of the “I” to exercise it.

    From the earliest psychoanalytic theories, the “I” (the “me”) has been described as a part of the psyche that constantly has to deal with external reality, intervening between internal conflicts or desires and external pressures. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere. To achieve this, the ego must use a significant level of psychic energy.

    More recently, theories such as ego exhaustion confirm that there is a type of energy or psychic force involved in willful acts. Thus, psychic energy is an indispensable resource to enable us to achieve self-regulation. But do we have unlimited reserves of this energy? Otherwise, what about our will?

    Exhaustion theory specifically suggests that, depending on the energy we have, we may or may not initiate voluntary behaviors (we will quickly give up tasks for lack of energy resources). In other words, self-regulation can be changed if there has been previous exhaustion psychic energy.

      Baumeister and other representative studies

      The psychologist Roy Baumeister, pioneer of this theory, defines “ego exhaustion” (originally ego exhaustion) as a state in which the “I” does not have all the resources it needs. ‘he normally owns. Likewise, some of the executive functions for which it is responsible (such as self-regulation, decision-making and behavioral activation) depend on the number of these resources consumed or available.

      this researcher suggests that a significant part of the “I” has limited resources, Which are used for all acts involving his own will. In other words, being limited, the resources do not arrive for all the acts, at least not if they are presented consecutively.

      Thus, as a psychological phenomenon, ego exhaustion makes the “I” temporarily less able and less willing to function optimally, deteriorating later tasks. In other words, after making a significant mental effort, the “I” becomes exhausted, generating a state of fatigue or relaxation in which it worsens the person’s ability to self-regulate.

      In fact, some studies have shown that the efforts we make to adapt to stressful situations have such a high “psychic cost” that interferes with or hinders subsequent activity (Even if these are activities that are not related to the stressful situation).

      For example, mental efforts to contain behaviors that generate pleasure in us; like when we put a lot of effort into dieting, and at the first opportunity to enjoy good food, our self-regulation decreases dramatically (we eat too much).

      Another example is a study where it was shown that when a person tries not to think of a polar bear, this exercise in self-regulation generates so much ego exhaustion, that people give up more quickly when they do. a later task although apparently unrelated to the polar bear, such as an anagram test).

      Likewise, other research on the theory of ego exhaustion suggests that heavy mental efforts, such as cognitive dissonance and emotional repression, generate ego depletion and have an impact on subsequent decision-making. Similarly, some studies have suggested that the greater the ego depletion, the less guilt and / or empathy there is. And with that, less likely to engage in prosocial behaviors.

      How to recover the energy of the ego?

      As we have seen, ego depletion is a phenomenon present in many of our daily activities. But this theory has not only allowed us to analyze the repercussions of psychic energy attrition on our decisions, our capacities and our behavior.

      The theory of ego exhaustion has also been used to analyze the importance of basic problems to compensate for fatigue, such as rest. Braumeister himself, along with his collaborators, have suggested that compensatory and remedial measures exist psychic strength: sleep and positive emotional experiences, mainly.

      In the same vein, other researchers have studied compensation for ego exhaustion. through pleasant and rewarding physiological experiences. For example, trying foods or drinks high in glucose.

      Likewise, a significant activation of the heart rate was observed in the face of a high effort of self-control (greater effort at a higher level of exhaustion), which means that the psychic effort has direct repercussions. on our body.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Baumeister, R. and Vohs, K. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion and motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Compass, 1 (1): 115-128.
      • Baumeister, R. (2002). Ego Depletion and Failure of Self-Control: An Energetic Model of Self-Executive Function. I and Identity, 1 (2): 129-136.
      • Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? 74 (5): 1252-1265.
      • Bejarano, T. (2010). Self-regulation and freedom. Theme. Journal of Philosophy. 43: 65-86.
      • Hagger, MS and Chatzisarantis, NL (2013). The Sweet Taste of Success The presence of glucose in the oral cavity alleviates the depletion of self-control resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39: 28-42.
      • Xu, H., Bègue, L. and Bushman, BJ (2012). Too tired to deal with: ego exhaustion, guilt, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43 (5): 379-384.

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