I could start this blogpost with an anecdote about coming home from work tired, after a long day of concentrating; and giving in to the temptation of eating junk food instead of that healthy salad you planned to eat. However, I think all of us are very familiar with these kinds of situations (and experience them all too often). Maybe you are reading this blog and feel the guilt creeping up on you. Don’t feel singled-out: I am not here to shame you or blame you. Ease yourself with the thought that the scientific field of social psychology has been obsessed with this phenomenon, called ‘Ego Depletion’.
In short, ‘Ego Depletion’ boils down to the fact that you have a limited ‘inner resource’ that allows you to exert self-control (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). Every time you use it for self-control (‘I won’t eat those cookies, I’m going for a sandwich’), that resource is gradually being drained (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). This means that when this resource is drained you find yourself in a state of ‘Ego Depletion’, and you will have a higher likelihood to fail when you want to do another activity that requires self-control (‘Oops… I still ate the cookie’) (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019).
Can we relate? Yes. Is there debate? Yes. Scientists are still discussing whether ‘Ego Depletion’ is real, as some recent studies have failed to replicate the effect (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). The whole field of social psychology is trying to find out whether it is real, where mistakes might have been made, how to continue, etc (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). However, a small group of researchers investigated a potential antidote to ‘Ego Depletion’, which is really interesting! For the sake of the argument, let us assume that Ego Depletion is real, as I believe that most of you have felt something like it, and let us focus instead on this potential antidote.
Well, what is this potential countermeasure to combat Ego Depletion? Mindfulness (meditation). As mentioned before, scientist have become more curious about this phenomenon and the ways in which it can potentially benefit people. And if you look around, you can see that also in modern society there is a huge interest for it. Blogs mention that mindfulness can ‘help recharge your mental energy’ (Cherry, n.d.). And the popular app (with accompanying Netflix series) ‘Headspace’ claims that self-discipline can be ‘trained’ and improved through meditation (Headspace, n.d.). A brief glance at their website shows you the many supposed benefits of mindfulness. But what does science have to say about this?
A study from 2012 by Friese, Messner and Schaffner already showed promising effects. They investigated the short-term effects of a brief period of mindfulness on Ego Depletion. They conducted an experiment and split the participants into a couple of groups: a control group who was not ego depleted; a group that was ego depleted; and a group that was ego depleted and did mindfulness meditation. The groups had to do a task that required self-control to measure the differences. Surprisingly, the participants that were ego depleted but participated in the mindfulness meditation, did almost equally well as the participants in the control group! The group that was ego depleted but did not participate in the mindfulness, did significantly worse.
Recently, another study in this area showed positive effects too (Shaabani, Naderi, Borella & Calmeiro, 2020)! This study was conducted among professional basketball players doing free throws; as you can image this task requires a significant amount of self-control. The results were in line with the previously mentioned study. Basketball players that were ego depleted but followed mindfulness meditation, performed similarly to the control group (that was not ego depleted), whereas the group that did not follow the mindfulness meditation but was ego depleted, performed worse. An interesting finding in this study was that participants that were not ego depleted but did follow the mindfulness meditation, saw an increase in the performance! This suggests that mindfulness not only counteracts the effects of Ego Depletion, but can also (slightly) improve performance.
However, it’s not all sunshine and roses. A study from 2018 tried to find out whether mindfulness could compensate for Ego Depletion in the area of physical exercise (Stocker, Englert & Seiler, 2018). This team of scientist did not find any effect of mindfulness exercise on the Ego Depletion effect. In their study, mindfulness does not lead to a recovery from a state of Ego Depletion.
What does this mean? First of all, I want to make a few critical points about the studies. In the article by Friese, Messner and Schaffner (2012) it was mentioned that the participants were attendees of an introductory mediation seminar. Therefore, this could mean that the participants already ‘believed’ in the effects of mindfulness and that this partly caused the effect to show. Moreover, the mindfulness exercise in the study of the basketball players (Shaabani et al., 2020) was about fifteen minutes long (and the effect was found), whereas the mindfulness exercise in the study of physical exercise (Stocker et al., 2018) was only four minutes long (and no effect was found). This suggests that the time of the exercise could influence the results, but further research should look into this.
However, I also have to give credit where credit is due. Looking at all the three studies, I think that overall they are very well and precisely executed, and properly documented. So maybe there is something else at play here.
What I think is more likely here – especially given the fact the studies were so well executed – is that the effect of mindfulness on Ego Depletion is not universal. I believe that mindfulness works better in some cases than in others, and that that is the reasons why not every study was able to find a result. It would be interesting to see further research on this.
Finally; is mindfulness a cure for Ego Depletion? I find it hard to say. What I find tricky about the situation is that doing a mindfulness exercise is something that requires self-control as well; so how likely is it that a person in an ego depleted state will actually do this? If I speak for myself, the odds are not in my favour. In my case, I would probably just turn on my tv and watch the Kardashians. However, I can imagine that some people are more capable of actually doing a mindfulness exercise. Especially if people have this built into their daily routines. And people that have the discipline and structure to build the mindfulness exercises into their routine, may also have the discipline to pull themselves together and focus just one more time.
Even though it is still uncertain whether mindfulness can combat Ego Depletion or not, there is one thing I can say with certainty: it never hurts to try! So: close your eyes, take a deep breath and say ‘Ooom’.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). How Ego Depletion Can Sabotage Your Willpower. Verywell Mind. Retrieved February 23d 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/ego-depletion-4175496
Friese, M., Messner, C., & Schaffner, Y. (2012). Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 1016–1022. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.008
Headspace. (n.d.) How to develop self-discipline. Retrieved February 23d 2021, from https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness/how-to-develop-self-discipline
Inzlicht, M., & Friese, M. (2019). The past, present, and future of ego depletion. Social
Psychology, 50, 370–378. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000398
Shaabani, F., Naderi, A., Borella, E., & Calmeiro, L. (2020). Does a brief mindfulness intervention counteract the detrimental effects of ego depletion in basketball free throw under pressure? Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 9(2), 197–215. https://doi.org/10.1037/spy0000201
Stocker, E., Englert, C., & Seiler, R. (2018). Self-Control Strength and Mindfulness in Physical Exercise Performance: Does a Short Mindfulness Induction Compensate for the Detrimental Ego Depletion Effect? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 31(3), 324–339. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2018.1471754