Is Your Ego Depleted? Try a Cookie and a Nap.

Samuel Butler, by Charles Gogin (died 1931), g...

Portrait of Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin (Credit: Wikipedia)

Victorian-era novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a quotation machine, maybe because he jotted down his every thought. At least it seems that way. Here are a few samples:

  • Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk. (Huh?)
  • The whole life of some people is a kind of partial death—a long, lingering death-bed, so to speak, of stagnation and nonentity on which death is but the seal, or solemn signing, as the abnegation of all further act and deed on the part of the signer. Death robs these people of even that little strength which they appeared to have and gives them nothing but repose. (Aw, quit blowing sunshine.)
  • Never consciously agonise; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Moments of extreme issue are unconscious and must be left to take care of themselves. During conscious moments take reasonable pains but no more and, above all, work so slowly as never to get out of breath. Take it easy, in fact, until forced not to do so. (Count me in.)
  • A piece of string is a thing that, in the main, makes for togetheriness; whereas a knife is, in the main, a thing that makes for splitty-uppiness; still, there is an odour of togetheriness hanging about a knife also, for it tends to bring potatoes into a man’s stomach. (The hell you say!)

Butler also observed that his parents were “brutal and stupid by nature,” which has a catchy, though dark, lilt. He wrote Erehwon, a novel I’m disinclined to read because, even though it’s satire, nowhere in reverse is ham-handed.

But all splitty-uppiness and low-brow moves are excused on the merit of a single Butler-ism: “Life is one long process of getting tired.” If the author had written nothing else, this eight-word string of togetheriness would make him a prophet. I’m only half-kidding. Some months back I ran across a New York Times article asking, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” Turns out Samuel Butler was speaking both spiritually and scientifically.

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Sigmund Freud: love those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mulling over an impressive, scary body of research, Times science columnist John Tierney fleshes out Butler’s claim. “Decision fatigue,” he writes, “is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy.” Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted studies in recent years demonstrating that making choices is measurably and significantly tiring.

  • Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University looked at the parole system in Israel and discovered “by analyzing more than 1,100 [parole board] decisions over the course of a year . . . [that a prisoner’s] probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.  Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” So basically a considerable hunk of a human being’s life can hinge on judges’ glucose levels and their reluctance to nap, both of which—some carbohydrates and/or twenty minutes of rest—might bring about a fair as opposed to a weary, pessimistic verdict.
  • And decisions don’t have to be monumental to be draining. Tierney: The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice . . . . So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The life decisions that wear us down like a tire with the steel belt showing through are everywhere. One researcher, Jean Twenge, who found the process of planning her wedding exhausting, gave her colleagues a great lead for a study. A department store in their vicinity was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so she and others went, bought junk like mad, and messed with subjects’ heads. “When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices? Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one?” And so on. Other subjects were asked to view and comment on the same articles without making any choices among them. “Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can.” The deciders averaged twenty-eight seconds, the non-deciders sixty-seven.

Tierney’s compilation of examples of ego depletion and decision fatigue goes on at length:

  • Research conducted at German car dealerships found that customers could be worn down by the number of options to choose from, and “by manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2000 at the time).” Note to self: next time you make a complicated purchase, go in ahead of time, get the list of choices, and decide at home.
  • Here’s something to keep in mind if you ever grumble that the poor are mostly to blame for their troubles: “Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs.” Dean Spears of Princeton University “offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages.” Their decision fatigue was considerable, “as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip.” Life is one long process of . . . trying to be strong. Is it any wonder that people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet sometimes make what appear to be foolish choices, like using food stamps to buy filet mignon? Always having to distinquish wants from needs is exhausting and leads to oh-what-the-hell mistakes.
  • The irony of decision fatigue is its antidote: glucose. Several Baumeister et. al. studies demonstrate that people are able to exercise willpower and make wise short- and long-term decisions when they’re given a blast of glucose. They stick with problem solving tasks longer than the glucose-deprived and make more prudent, less impulsive financial decisions. Even dogs are well-served by carbohydrates. “After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes,” University of Kentucky researchers found, “the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.” The shortcoming in this equation for diabetics like me who are constantly trying to lose twenty pounds is obvious. As Tierney puts it, “1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. 2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.” Dang!
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Eh, no thanks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Baumeister (along with co-authors Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Rice) summarize the sad reality in a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Of course, they believe so. Here are a couple snippets from the abstract:

  • People who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.  
  • Suppressing emotion led to a subsequent drop in performance of solvable anagrams.  (So it’s not just about making choices, but trying to control ourselves in any way that depletes our ego.)
  • These results suggest that the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.

In short, then, thinking makes us tired, and when we get tired, stupid statements come out of our mouths and dumb and sometimes harmful decisions come out of our brains. No wonder many of us walk around yawning and saying, “I need a nap” Life is one long process of getting tired. The active self is a limited resource.

Beggars_rest_near_Russian_State_Library_and_Moscow_Kremlin_(2011-03-29)

Homeless Russian men napping on their blankies–no milk and cookies. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Fulghum’s folksy advice is grounded in science, and we should listen: “Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Judges in every country should have a couple of Lorna Doones and a siesta for the sake of the afternoon docket. Folks in the market for a car ought to sip orange juice and nap before talking to a car dealer.

As for myself, I have the midday rest part down. The problem is, I don’t know how to eat just a few cookies.

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Not Lorna Doones, but I’d eat them. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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2 thoughts on “Is Your Ego Depleted? Try a Cookie and a Nap.

  1. I’m wondering if Butler wasn’t the one behind these quotes. “Eggs are good.” and “This is excellent salt.”

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