22 November 2012

Don't Spend the Rent Money on Shoes - Self-Control and Ego-Depletion

The daily activities of a human can be divided into two broad categories: (1) those which can be done without any significant effort and come quite natural and (2) those which require focusing, are effortful and require self-control.

There are a few activities that belong to the first category for any person. For example each person can walk, sleep, eat, make love, wash dishes etc. without any significant (mental) effort of focusing and exerting self-control. For the other “less trivial” activities there is no clear universal distinction. For example a painter can paint without any effort while an accountant might need a lot of concentration and effort to be able to paint. Similarly, one could be “a natural” on solving complicated mathematical equations, while someone else would need a lot of will-power to only read equations.

I guess you got the picture. There are some activates that come natural for every person, while for other activities some people need self-control and concentration, while other people don’t.  

In order to complete the activities that come less natural, one has to exert self-control which can come in different forms. A severe example is when someone has to deal with annoying (or annoyed) people all day long. That person has to not burst and shout “You’re an idiot and I don’t want to have anything to do with you”. A less severe example is when someone has to perform a repetitive (and boring) task that requires accuracy such as doing the pay-roll in a firm or the inventory in a store.

One particular example of exerting self-control is delaying gratification. In many instances we encounter in life we have to make a choice between a small reward (something pleasant) now and a bigger reward later. Some people are able to delay the immediate gratification and go through something unpleasant in order to get (or hoping to get) the bigger reward later. An example is education. A child could go for the immediate reward of the joy of playing a computer game or go through an unpleasant process of studying in order to get a later bigger reward of a better life as a better learned person.

Exerting self-control is by its nature something that requires mental effort. A very important line of research in psychology has shown that a person’s ability to exert self-control is limited. In essence self-control is a resource and by its very nature is limited. As I have mentioned earlier, there are considerable differences among people with regard to the amount of the self-control resource. In other words, some people have more self-control resources than others. At the same time, this resource is limited for any person… even the people with huge amounts of self-control resources can run out of it.

There is some proof that self-control draws on the body’s energy resources. For example in an experiment people who have run out of the self-control resource were given sugar (glucose for those of you who want to be more accurate) and the self-control ability was restored. Other studies show that “taking a brake” from the task that requires self-control and doing something pleasant (see a funny video) leads to restoration of self-control capabilities.

Another line of research claims that older people are better than younger ones at exhibiting self-control and from my point of view this is not surprising. I believe that it is safe to assume that self-control can be “educated” or “learned” thus leading to a better management of the resources needed to exert it. Other researchers claim that we don’t have a limited amount of self-control, but rather that we shift resources from self-control to gratification.

To sum up how self-control works, the general view is that we can exert a limited amount of self-control given limited energy resources. Whether the cause is that we run out of energy resources or allocate them to other area or simply if we use them faster or slower, the main idea is that a person’s ability to exert self-control is limited. The state when a person is low on self-control resources is called ego-depletion.

When a person is ego-depleted a very interesting thing is happening, namely that the “computer-like” reasoning mechanism is “switched off” and the person functions on the “Bird-brain” mode. When we function on the “Bird-brain” mode, we tend to be impulsive and make judgments based on “rules of thumb” (Heuristics), we tend to go more for the hedonic side and indulge. Another thing that we do when functioning on the “Bird-brain” mode is that we are more likely to cheat and exhibit behavior that is not exactly desired by society.

A nice example of using heuristics when ego-depleted comes from a study of parole hearings in Israel. In this study the only reliable predictor of a prisoner’s chance of getting released on parole was the time of day when he had the parole hearing (when his case was presented to the parole committee).  Prisoners that had their hearings in the early morning and those who had them right after lunch were released on parole more often than prisoners who had their hearings at other times of the day. The interpretation is that early in the morning and right after lunch the members of the parole committee had energy resources available to use the “computer-like” reasoning mechanism and not go with the default option (a common heuristic) of rejecting the application for parole release.

The popular belief is that we have unlimited self-control or will-power or free-will (all different names for the same thing).  Science has challenged this belief and has proven that in fact we have limited capabilities. Now, the interesting thing is that we do not have “accounts” of self-control. But before explaining this, let me give you an image of what having accounts means.

Imagine that your money is all in cash (bills and coins) and that you need to manage it wisely in order to get from one month to another. In order to not “go overboard” with spending you created a management system based on jars. You have a jar for each of your expenses such as rent, groceries, clothes (for the ladies this is a big jar) etc. Whenever you get your monthly income you immediately take the money and place it in the jars. Each jar is an account.

The opposite of this very rudimentary but effective system of managing money, is a bank account and a debit card. There all the money is in the same place and you need to exhibit a lot of self-control to not spend the rent money on clothes or shoes.

For money management we have both mental and physical accounts to help us manage it. For self-control, however, we do not have such accounts. This implies that our self-control resources are more like in a “bank account with debit card” and we risk spending our “rent money” on “shoes”. 

In other words we can use our self-control resources in one area (not telling the client that he’s a complete idiot) and run out of them when we are in a different situation such as renting a car and agreeing with the sales-man’s suggestion to get the 4 wheel-drive one that costs 30 euros more per day than the one we wanted to rent in the first place.

To conclude this post, use your self-control resources wisely and when in need for more self-control have a chocolate. 

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