Another wonderfully astute, highly enlightening post from one of my favorites: David McRaney at YOU ARE NOT SO SMART (I just bought his book on Kindle, in fact, so the man must be doing something right!). Here he tackles the notion of ego depletion (see also: Decision Fatigue) and how it affects us (often, without our even realizing it) as we go about our day in this ever-increasingly-complex modern world... Writers, in particular, seem to be most prone to ego depletion--when you sit down to edit a piece or, God help you, face the blank page and begin anew, the number of decisions you're making, oh-so-rapidly, all in a row, is so extraordinary (terrifying, really), that it's no wonder even the best, most seasoned writers, the pros at the very top of their game, burn out after 4 to 5 hours or so (I've noticed, over the years, that I can write for about 5 hours in a row--total concentration--before I suddenly, and almost without warning, hit a kind of "wall", much like hitting muscle failure at the gym, after which point I can keep going, but the writing all turns to mush--time to take a long break then, or wrap for the day completely...). What's fascinating to consider here, however, is the idea that ego depletion can, just like muscle exhaustion, can be tracked, measured, quantified, and, under certain circumstances, even blunted or postponed significantly (by taking in more sugar, for instance), to which I say: if that means I can extend my willpower and, thus, my decision making ability, total concentration time, and total effective WRITING time, all simply by taking more pre-scheduled breaks and / or getting a piece of fruit in, well, I'm ALL for that... Check it out--
The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.
The Truth: Willpower is a finite resource.
In 2005, a team of psychologists made a group of college students feel like scum.
The researchers invited the undergraduates into their lab and asked the students to just hang out for a while and get to know each other. The setting was designed to simulate a casual meet-and-greet atmosphere, you know, like a reception or an office Christmas party – the sort of thing that never really feels all that casual?
The students divided into same-sex clusters of about six people each and chatted for 20 minutes using conversation starters provided by the researchers. They asked things like “Where are you from?” and “What is your major?” and “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Researchers asked the students beforehand to make an effort to learn each other’s names during the hang-out period, which was important, because the next task was to move into a room, sit alone, and write down the names of two people from the fake party with whom the subjects would most like to be partnered for the next part of the study. The researchers noted the responses and asked the students to wait to be called. Unbeknownst to the subjects, their choices were tossed aside while they waited.
The researchers – Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan DeWall, Natalie J. Ciarocco and Jean M. Twenge of Florida State, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State universities – then asked the young men and women to proceed to the next stage of the activity in which the subjects would learn, based on their social skills at the party, what sort of impression they had made on their new acquaintances. This is where it got funky.
The scientists individually told the members of one group of randomly selected people, “everyone chose you as someone they’d like to work with.” To keep each person in the wanted group isolated, the researchers also told each person the groups were already too big and he or she would have to work alone. Students in the wanted group proceeded to the next task with a spring in their step, their hearts filled with moonbeams and fireworks. The scientists individually told each member of another group of randomly selected people, “I hate to tell you this, but no one chose you as someone they wanted to work with.” Believing absolutely no one wanted to hang out with them, people in this group then learned they would have to work by themselves. Punched in the soul, their self-esteem dripping with inky sludge, the people in the unwanted group proceeded to the main task.
The task, the whole point of going through all of this as far as the students knew, was to sit in front of a bowl containing 35 mini chocolate-chip cookies and judge those cookies on taste, smell, and texture. The subjects learned they could eat as many as they wanted while filling out a form commonly used in corporate taste tests. The researchers left them alone with the cookies for 10 minutes.
This was the actual experiment – measuring cookie consumption based on social acceptance. How many cookies would the wanted people eat, and how would their behavior differ from the unwanted? Well, if you’ve had much contact with human beings, and especially if you’ve ever felt the icy embrace of being left-out of the party or getting picked last in kickball, your hypothesis is probably the same as the one put forth by the psychologists. They predicted the rejects would gorge themselves, and so they did. On average the rejects ate twice as many cookies as the popular people. To an outside observer, nothing was different – same setting, same work, similar students sitting alone in front of scrumptious cookies. In their heads though, they were on different planets. For those on the sunny planet with the double-rainbow sky, the cookies were easy to resist. Those on the rocky, lifeless world where the forgotten go to fade away found it more difficult to stay their hands when their desire to reach into the bowl surfaced.
Why did the rejected group feel motivated to keep mushing cookies into their sad faces? Why is it, as explained by the scientists in this study, that social exclusion impairs self-regulation? The answer has to do with something psychologists now call ego depletion, and you would be surprised to learn how many things can cause it, how often you feel it, and how much in life depends on it. Before we get into all of that, let’s briefly discuss the ego.