Psychologist Roy Baumeister reflects on his groundbreaking 1998 research on self-control and shares how it became the dominant theory despite its unpopular Freudian roots.
Back in 1996, Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment that was downright evil.
Together with his former Case Western Reserve University colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice, he examined the effect of a tempting food challenge designed to deplete participants' willpower through the awful power of an unfulfilled promise of chocolate!
In the first part of the trial, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and then teased them further by showing them the actual treats alongside other chocolate-flavored confections. While some did get to indulge their sweet tooth, the subjects in the experimental condition, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead. And they weren't happy about it. As the scientists noted in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper two years later (PDF), many of the radish-eaters "exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them."
After the food bait-and-switch, Baumeister's team gave the participants a second, supposedly unrelated exercise, a persistence-testing puzzle. The effect of the manipulation was immediate and undeniable. Those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study. In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat pungent vegetables could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.
In the psychology world, the key finding of this seemingly silly study was a breakthrough: self-control is a general strength that's used across different sorts of tasks -- and it could be depleted. This proved that self-regulation is not a skill to be mastered or a rote function that can be performed with little consequence. It's like using a muscle: After exercising it, it loses its strength, gets fatigued, and becomes ineffectual, at least in the short-term. Perhaps more importantly, this research would go on to serve as the foundation for at least 1,282 other studies involving everything from consumer to criminal behavior. It would, for instance, help show why people are energized by positive messages, more likely to engage in retail therapy when brokenhearted, and better off tricking themselves into eating less than willfully dieting.
In the Q&A below, Baumeister looks back on his team's influential study. He opens up about why they were initially very unhappy with the results, how some scientists continue to misuse their findings, and how this psychological experiment eventually wound up influencing the world of biology.
What was the predominant understanding about self-control back then? What was the purpose of your research?
There were three competing theories about self-control. One was that it was a kind of information processing: the mind knows what's up, figures out what to do, and does it. A second was that it was a kind of energy or strength, akin to the folk notion of willpower. And the third was that it was a skill. This last one was favored by child psychologists, who think of children growing up and acquiring skills little by little, with self-control being one of them.
One scenario in which the theories made conflicting predictions is when one exerts self-control and then gets another, different demand for self-control soon afterward. The information processing theory predicted that people should do better on the second self-control task as a result of having done the first, because the first would get the self-control module operating. This is a bit like having the program already up and running on your computer, which makes it quicker at taking on a new task. The second theory holds that your strength or energy would be depleted by the first task, so you would do worse on the second. And the skill model predicts no change from one trial to another, but gradual improvement over many occasions.
So we set up our experiment to pit these three against each other. At a lab meeting, Dianne Tice, my wife and longtime colleague, suggested confronting people with radishes and chocolates and telling them, "We really need you in the radish condition" to deplete their willpower before they solved some puzzles. Essentially, we had people engage in one self-control task and, afterward, had them do something quite different that still required self-control.
What made your study stand out?
This sort of theory was very far from the reigning models and theories in psychology when we started this work in the mid-1990s. Everyone was talking about cognitive processes and using information-processing models. Nobody talked about energy. In fact, when I first began to present this work to scientific audiences, I used to joke, "Energy models are so out of fashion that we're not even opposed to them anymore!" They were associated with obsolete Freudian theories about clashing instincts and the like. Our group was actually not very happy about these findings, because they really suggested we needed a theory based on energy, and we knew these would be tough to sell. When I was looking for a term to describe these effects, I settled on "ego depletion" as homage to Freud, because as far as I could ascertain he had been the last major theorist to say that the human self was made partly of energy and worked by energy processes.