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Ego Depletion


Explanations > Theories > Ego Depletion

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



As humans, we have have natural urges and tendencies which, if we indulged, would not always be socially acceptable. We therefore need to control these and a key part of childhood is spend in learning this discipline. We also need to do things that we do not necessarily want to do, which also requires inner control.

There are a number negative emotions that we may experience, from anger to fear, yet in social situations there is a common value that such emotions should be suppressed rather than expressed. Such control also takes ongoing effort, peaking at the moments when there internal pressure to say or do something that might later be regretted.

This self-management takes constant emotional and cognitive effort. In these acts of self-control and will-power, some acts take more effort than others. Overall, though, there is almost always some ongoing effort in staying socially acceptable.

We have limited resources for this task, which can run low, leaving us exhausted and vulnerable. In this state we may make more errors and our decision-making ability may well be impaired. We may also be more liable to outbursts, such as of anger or shock. As control loosens emotions intensify, including positive ones, and the person may become more excited.

In a Freudian sense, this self-control uses the conscious 'ego' to control the basic desires of the 'id'. Hence as it gets worn down through exercise, the ego becomes depleted.

Ego depletion tend to result in greater attention to the short term with priority being given to this and consequent ignoring of longer-term factors. This can lead to unwise decisions.

The depletion that is caused may be restored to some extend by rest and positive experiences. It has also been found that ingesting glucose has a significant restorative effect. This depletion and restoration has contributed to the metaphor of will as a 'muscle'.


Baumeister et al (1998) put subjects in either the position of having to resist taking chocolates or resist eating radishes, or having nothing to resist. They then gave them an impossibly difficult problem to solve. Those who had to resist chocolates reported being more exhausted and gave up on the problem earlier than either of the other two conditions.

Subsequent research by Baumeister has shown that people who are less intelligent, and so find it harder to do mental problems, suffer greater ego depletion. He also found that ego depletion in shoppers was more likely to lead to impulse purchases.


A person who is from a social group where swearing is common goes to a party in polite company. They try not to swear, but as the evening wears on, a few expletives do slip out.

So What?

Using it

Asking people to do things they would not normally do, and which requires cognitive and emotional effort, will act to tire them, making them more liable to accept later suggestions.


When you seem to be putting effort into something, beware of making subsequent significant decisions. Take a good rest and refresh yourself before deciding.

See also

Fatigue, Willpower as Muscle



Baumeister, R.  (2002). "Yielding to Temptation: Self-Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, and Consumer Behavior. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 28

Muraven, M., Tice, D. M. and Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as a limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.

Muraven, M., and Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247-259.


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