I think I was 7, when my mother told me that I could take some music lessons to become part of our musical household in which everyone played an instrument. It started with some more general lessons, about musical notes, rhythms, and tone. But after a while, ‘General Musical Development’ was over and I needed to go for something more specific. Since there was a piano in our living room, standing there, catching dust since way before the time I was born, the decision was already made. The piano lessons started. First, I had lessons from a teacher who lived in our tiny village. She was specialized in classical music, but still tried to close the gap between us by teaching me modern music blues and boogie-woogie. Nonetheless, building a bridge between us was not very easy, so a new teacher came in. He taught me chords and how to play jazz piano, which was really cool. Despite this amazing teacher and his effort to help me, I never became a great piano player. In this blog I will try to find the answer why.
My mornings started at 7h30, waking up, eating breakfast, brushing my teeth and then finding myself in all the hustle of the primary school classroom, where the main question was with whom you were going to celebrate your birthday parties and play on the playground. Today, it seems like this costed no effort at all, and as I’m living a totally different life right now, I may start to believe in that statement. But if I think back properly, bringing back Yung Niels, I know my resources of will power and rationality were drained after a school day. Then I would come home, and my mother would tell me ‘Niels, you still have to practice your piano skills.’ Then a conversation in my head started, just like in the blog post Dan Ariely (2012) wrote on the Tim Ferris Show webpage:
‘No! I cannot do that anymore!’.
‘But, Niels, you have to, otherwise you will never reach a sufficient level in playing piano.’
‘I reaaaaally don’t want to practice!’
‘I understand, but you also did not practice a lot last week.’
‘I will do something else!’
My self-control resource was emptied and I was not able to make myself practicing anymore. I was in a state of what Baumeister and his colleagues (Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice, 1994) would have called ego depleted.
According to the resource model or strength model (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019), self-control is a central but not infinite resource and can be depleted. This self-control powers many different things that are quite similar in their underlying motives (Inbar & Inzlicht, 2019). It is for example about being able to choose a healthy salad or fruit over an unhealthy chocolate cake, but can also be about dragging yourself to the piano stool for practicing piano skills instead of crashing on that relaxing sofa again. Making the right decisions involves self-control, and as the level of self-control becomes lower and lower as the day goes on, the capability decreases to regulate behavior during tasks that follow on other tasks. It runs out after using it, like ‘a sort of mental fuel’ (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019, p. 371). When the level of this resource declines, one is more likely to fail to control behavior (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). The resource model also states that one can train self-control, and that you can improve self-control by engaging more and more in it (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007).
The classical models concerning ego depletion tell that the self-control resource is mainly drained in situations where ‘something is working against something’ (Inbar & Inzlicht, 2019, 17:30). The self-control fuel is being used when you put effort in something that needs to be done but you don’t necessarily get energy from it, or putting effort in a task you actually do not want to do, causing in less self-control later on in time. However, recent research states that it concerns all effortful behaviour. It does not necessarily need to be inhibition (Inbar & Inzlicht, 2019). So also, my joyful playing at the school is inhabited in this fuel consumption process.
But what is actually being consumed? Is the source of self-control just a metaphor? Some researchers stated it is more than that and pointed at blood glucose. However, this was never sufficiently proved, and it was criticized greatly. It turns out there is no real resource, or either way it cannot be glucose (Inbar & Inzlicht, 2019; Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). But what is it then? It remains a bit unclear what is actually being consumed. There are, on the other hand, other researchers who suggest that there is no actual consumption of a certain resource whatsoever, but that losing self-control has more to do with motivation, emotion and attention (Cherry, 2020). In The past, present, and future of ego depletion by Inzlicht & Friese (2019) the question arises if ego depletion even exists, or that it’s just part of mental fatigue.
Still, even though I tried very hard to put myself behind the piano keys, I often was not there where I should have been. If I would have started practicing earlier on the day, before all the other effortful activities a young kid has on a colourful day, I maybe would have been a very qualified pianist now and would have been playing all over the world. Who knows? Anyway, to really find the answer, research must be done in a real setting, rather than in laboratories. As Inzlicht & Friese (2019) state, the concept of ego depletion is very well applicable in the real world, but is merely researched in clean laboratories. I would have loved to invite some scientists next to me behind the piano.
Ariely, D. (2012, April 12). Understanding the dangers of “ego-depletion”. Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://tim.blog/2012/08/12/understanding-the-dangers-of-ego-depletion/
Baumeister, R. F., & Heatherton, T. F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0701_1
Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351–355. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00534.x
Cherry, K. (2020, April 09). How ego depletion can sabotage your willpower. Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/ego-depletion-4175496#research
Gieseler, K., Loschelder, D. D., & Friese, M. (2019). What makes for a good theory? How to evaluate a theory using the strength model of self-control as an example. In K. Sassenberg & M. Vliek (Eds.), Social psychology in action (pp. 3–21). Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978–3-030–13788-5_1
Inzlicht, M., & Friese, M. (2019). The past, present, and future of ego depletion. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 370-378. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000398
Inbar, Y. & Inzlicht, M. (Hosts). (2019, October 2). Is Ego Depletion Real? (No. 31) [Audio podcast episode]. In Two Psychologists Four Beers. https://www.fourbeers.com/31
Picture by Niels Mulder