Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Ego depletion and motivation

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Ego depletion and motivation:
What is ego depletion, how does it affect motivation, and how can it be managed?

Ego Depletion[edit]

Ego depletion is a state in which the self does not have all its normal resources. Thus the self temporarily is less able and less willing to function normally and optimally. The self’s executive function, which includes self-regulation as well as effortful choice and active initiative, depends on a limited resource that is consumed during such activities (Baumeister et al., 2007). Most importantly, ego depletion reflects why self-control fails, and this is due to previous exertion of self-control wilful acts of the self (Muraven, 2007). It can not be stressed enough that self-management is the key for our ego strength so that we can better manage our self-control, and unfortunately depleted people lack this. This is why most people who lack ego strength exhibit addictive behaviours. With addictive behaviours the persons level of ego strength is depleted, and he or she may find it difficult to resist temptations. A study examined the example of ego depletion in underage drinkers, and how although most adolescents have the urge to try new things, this is the result of a depleted ego. On days they reported greater self-control demands than average (and hence were more ego depleted), they were more likely to drink alcohol, consumed more alcohol when they did drink, and became more intoxicated (Muraven, 2007). This is all a result of self-control failure, as most of these individuals were oblivious to the amount they were consuming. Additionally further research into this showed that the increasing self-control demands recorded didn't actually increase the urge to drink, but instead their ability to self-regulate (Muraven, 2007). Self-control is the most important aspect in understanding ego depletion, but many other behavioural and motivational factors need to be taken into consideration.

Behavioural and Motivational Consequences[edit]

Mental Effort on Goal-Adherence[edit]

Ego depletion affects multiple abilities we acquire, noticeably self-control, however it also increases the likelihood of behaviour regulation failure, suggesting that it is difficult for people in an ego-depleted state to adhere to goals (Wang et al., 2015). This requires an executive control process in which people must expend mental effort (Hofmann et al., 2009). Thus this effects self-control as it requires substantial mental effort. Depleted individuals are less optimistic about their abilities, have a lower sense of control, and are less optimistic about the future (Fischer et al., 2007). Indeed, depleted individuals set lower standards for themselves and had less confidence in their ability to reach a goal than non-depleted individuals (DeBono et al., 2009). Thus in Wang's study results show chronic ego depletion was inversely related to performance and positively related to mental effort. The results did not reveal a significant association between chronic ego depletion and motivation for behaviour change. Researchers also tested whether the influences of chronic ego depletion were a function of shared variance with life events or task property. With life events and targets controlled, chronic ego depletion maintained an inverse relationship with performance and a positive relationship with mental effort (Wang et al., 2015). An explanation can be given as to why self-control appears to always fail with these individuals. Muraven and colleagues have discovered that depleted people are more likely to withhold mental effort to conserve control resources for future demands, which may help explain why self-control suffers. Thus future goals may be attainable as resources are conserved subconsciously by depleted individuals. Undoubtedly depleted individuals lack mental effort, however simple self-monitoring has found to increase motivation and goal adherence (Carver et al., 1998). Thus depleted individuals are able to incorporate these simple tasks which in turn can increase mental capabilities

Self-Control and the Limited Strength Model[edit]

The limited strength model states that failure of self-control emerges as a consequence of limited resources (Muraven et al., 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Examining this in an early study in 2004, psychologists used different manipulations of self-control (thought suppression, emotion regulation, impulse control, deliberate decision making and memory tasks) to examine that people repeatedly exert self-control within a relatively short period of time, and performance on a subsequent act of self-control is likely to decrease. Although the limited strength model does not state anything about time affecting self-control, the current study is related to this model. In a short period of time minimal resources are presented, as it is a short period of time, and we cannot make use of them well. However we need to learn how to make use of these resources efficiently since there is a minimal amount presented, so that self-control does not fail so we have discipline. If indeed we make efficient use of our self-control without exerting so much of it so it does not fail, it is expected that in to engage in the future we have a stronger desire to conserve limited self-control resources, especially when we have previously engaged in a self-control task (Muraven et al., 2006). Although the limited strength model states that exerting self-control causes a depletion of cognitive resources on self-control, a recent study has discovered that the occurrence of ego depletion can be circumvented by increasing self-awareness. The obtained results demonstrated that when depleted participants are exposed to a self-awareness manipulation, they outperform depleted participants who do not receive manipulation (Muraveen et al., 2006). In addition, performance of low depleted participants was not influenced by a self-awareness induction, and this suggests that priming manipulation is beneficial when resources are low (Muraveen et al., 2006). Although resources are limited and vulnerable to becoming depleted over time, according to the model, once a person’s self-control reserves have been depleted, the resulting state of ego depletion can be counteracted by replenishing the resource through rest or relaxation (Tyler et al., 2008) or by taking on fuel (Gailliot et al., 2007). Its understandable that rest is vital for replenishment, however there are two risks that can occur with the limited resources depleted individuals obtain. 1: There is high risk taking on more responsibilities as this can lead to burnout. 2: The fight or flight system will activate as a result of taking on more fuel, using all back up resources which can make the person quite vulnerable when they are weak at this point. Unfortunately ego depleted people will not have much strength after using their limited available resources, however it will replenish overtime.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) on Ego Depletion[edit]

Ego depletion is viewed as an energy model explaining how and why factors inhibit energy. However little attention has been given to the factors that might be associated with energy maintenance, and recently the self-determination theory has been able to provide us with insights and answers regarding this. In view of most recent studies it has been shown that controlled choices are ego depleting and conditions of autonomous choice are not (Moller et al., 2006). In one experiment, an autonomous-choice condition was contrasted with both a no-choice control group and the condition called controlled choice. The findings showed significantly greater persistence in the autonomous-choice condition than in the controlled choice condition and the no-choice control group fell between the other two (Moller et al., 2006). Quite significantly it is obvious that autonomous choices are not ego depleting, as they led to greater persistence than controlled choices. Furthermore supporting Moller and colleagues SDT hypotheses that self-controlled behaviours deplete and autonomously self-regulated behaviours do not, are Muraven and colleagues research on contingent or non-contingent rewards in exerting self-control. According to SDT, non-contingent rewards do not undermine autonomy, whereas performance-contingent rewards are often experienced as controlling (Deci et al., 1999 & Ryan et al., 1983). In Muraven's study, participants were asked to complete a subsequent test of self-control in two groups. One group received performance contingent rewards and the other non-contingent rewards. Based on this current experiment, Muraven confidently supports the argument that controlled choices are ego depleting. Muraven safely concludes that self-control is more depleting when externally determined than self-control that feels more personally chosen, and small changes in feelings of autonomy surrounding the activity can affect how depleting the task is (Muraven et al., 2007).

The Conservation Hypotheses[edit]

Glucose is the primary source of energy for all brain activity and therefore a decline in glucose may negatively affect executive functioning (Siesjö, 1978). Unfortunately, ego depletion involves temporary depletion of the body's caloric energy supplies (Galliot et al., 2007). Fortunately, the conservation hypothesis sheds light onto this, stating that back up sources of glucose, even when most of our stores are depleted, can still be used to motivate. Subconsciously, we preserve most of our self-control for future emergencies and high demands. However these people usually have very little amounts of glucose in the bloodstream, as they exert large amounts to try and self-control in the present moment (Galliot et al., 2007). For example, a tired athlete who starts conserving energy long before he or she is completely exhausted, the self-regulator may begin to cut back on effortful, biologically expensive exertions long before the capacity is fully depleted (Baumeister et al., 2007). Ego strength is a limited resource surprisingly, as many, if not all of us, in our daily lives use it to cover our true indentites[spelling?] and weaknesses such as anxieties and depression. So if individuals who use much of their ego strength everyday, does this mean they consume more high glucose foods? Depletion is more or less a temporary deficit and it effects, thus indicates conservation of a partly depleted resource rather than full incapacity because the resource is completely gone. Hence, motivations and incentives can inspire the person to expend some of the remaining resource even when it is depleted (Baumeister et al., 2007). To shed some light onto this topic, it is not only back up resources that help with motivation, but sugar can also improve the performance of depleted people, suggesting that depletion is also related to reduced levels of sugar (Masicampo et al., 2008). Additionally it is not just the depletion of glucose in the brain leading to poorer self-control, but as stated above incentives appear to moderate self-control levels. Hence different motivators can moderate self-control and may help depleted individuals.

Incentives Play Major Role in Motivation[edit]

Muraven and Slessareva's study was the first to examine whether motivation plays a key role in the ego depletion effect. They observed that such depletion was overcome when participants were offered a financial incentive to perform a second self-control task. The effect of financial incentives in Muraven and Slessareva’s study in overcoming the ego depletion effect may arise because depleted participants expend more effort as a result of the additional reward for self-control (Muraven et al., 2003). Supporting this claim, Muraveen and Slessareva indeed proved this. On the behavioral level, this self-control depletion effect was eliminated by monetary incentives to perform well in the Stroop (behavioral) task (Muraven et al., 2003). Hence a financial incentive increases an individual’s external motivation. Interestingly motivation becomes increased if there is a reward-related process, and this current study has discovered that the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) is responsible for the reward-related processing. In reverse, it has also been discovered that incentives actually allow depleted individuals to control themeselves so they do not show ego-depletion effects (Moller et al., 2006). In this instance there is self-control, however the individual may be struggling hard in the public eye in order to not show this weakness. Although the presence of incentives allow depleted individuals to exert self-control, future techniques should be implemented to look at other ways at how these individuals can exert self-control in other ways in rewarding ways, and not just as financial incentives.

Interpersonal Interactions Deplete[edit]

Research is increasingly showing that interpersonal relationships are one of the most common depleting areas based on poor self-control leading to ego depletion. Vohs and colleagues have proved that individuals who exert their ego as a means of self-presentation, compared to individuals who act naturally, are unable to regulate emotions properly leading to poor self control, as maintaining self presentation generally involves great self-control (Vohs et al., 2005). As a consequence of this, individuals generally lose themselves by constantly exerting their ego as a means of self-presentation. The loss of self-control by the constant exertion leads to depleted individuals less likely following basic social norms, for instance they are more likely to cheat, steal or lie (DeBono et al., 2011). Although ego depletion leads to a lack of self-control, it also leads to many other issues surrounding lack of self-control that most of us do not realise or understand about. An obvious problem a lack of self-control brings is easy persuasiveness. For example, resisting a persuasive attempt leads to patterns of self-control outcomes consistent with depletion (Burkley, 2008). Upon this, depleted individuals have reduced helpfulness which is the key ingredient of damaged relationships. It was discovered that depleted individuals respond less constructively to the negative behavior of their partner (Yovetich et al., 1994), hence lie more than non-depleted people (Mead et al., 2009). The most noticeable image depleted individuals portray are happy and joyful relationships, however this leads to aggressive behaviour due to these individuals not expressing their true emotions and constantly repressing urges. Unfortunately these individuals are at risk of losing them self, however an understanding of their cognitive constructs and features could be very beneficial in diagnosis and possibly rehabilitation on improving and helping themselves.

Cognition in Depleted Individuals[edit]

Non-depleted individuals struggle with aspects of cognitive functioning to some degree, however it is not as worse as depleted individuals. The mental processes of self-regulation and general cognitive functioning are both intrinsically connected as they both deplete the same mental resource and induce ego-depletion to individuals with limited ego strength capacity. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has shown that both of these mental processes occur in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, implicating these as interconnected mental activities (Hare et al. 2009). Thus it was discovered that depleted individuals do worse on tests of logic and reasoning, reading comprehension, and a general test of fluid cognitive functioning than non-depleted individuals (Schmeichel et al., 2003). The most common feature exhibited by depleted individuals is trouble in emotion regulation, as it appears to affect interpersonal relations. This also appears to affect working memory and performance on tests that require this ability considered to require substantial executive control and response inhibition. Another aspect of functioning depletion affects is basic decision making tasks. These individuals rely to a greater extent than non-depleted individuals on heuristics and fail to consider all options carefully which can lead to sub-optimal decisions (Masicampo et al., 2008). This aspect leads to higher risk taking which poses a stronger threat to depleted individuals. The link between negative affect and risk taking was also found to be partially mediated by depletion, due to their attempt at regulating their negative moods (Bruyneel et al., 2009). This unfortunately fails and depletion leads to greater risk taking. It is safe to conclude that depleted indivudals do not inherent higher cognitive functioning, but to shed some optimism these individuals still perform well on general knowledge and memory tests which do however require less higher order cognitive functioning (Muraven, 2007). Most importantly it cannot be stressed enough to continuously manage or seek assistance if one is struggling with ego strength as it affects so many aspects of cognitive functioning. It is critical at both a personal and societal level affecting cognition in many ways such as, aggression, mood regulation and temptations.


Individuals experiencing ego depletion have limited resources in self-regulatory behaviours, however strategies that rely on cognitive function also decrease the effects of ego-depletion and not further negatively affect depletion. Utilising cognitive functioning when depleted allows the individual to change or refocus their perception of the self-regulatory task to be completed (Alberts et al., 2007). This is the underlying goal of cognitive interventions, to allow the individual to proactively avoid or decrease the effects of ego-depletion (Amatangelo, 2015). Whilst short term implementations increase the chance of reducing ego depletion, such as good sleep and a good diet, long term interventions must be implemented in order to fully reduce and diminish most of ego depletion. These long term interventions include attentional shifting, priming oneself with inspirational accounts of self–control, and the activation of persistence reduce ego–depletion and improve self-regulation (Amatangelo, 2015). We cannot fully help ourselves by relying on short term goals, however it is a good way to start reducing depletion slowly. Surprisingly, these interventions are not dependent on an individual’s capacity for self-regulation, but rather his or her willingness to use cognitive function to circumvent the effects of ego-depletion (Amatangelo, 2015). Implementing such basic strategies may seem stressful for the individual, however they actually appear to be quite easy and affective to do. For example, alcoholics reminded throughout the day of the desire to drink could take a moment to read encouraging remarks made about traits others have observed in them, such as persistence, taken from meetings in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as a means of inspiration to not give in to the desire to drink (Amatangelo, 2015). These interventions should be commenced right away so this reduces the effect of greater depleting oneself.


Multiple aspects constantly affect our ego's, however some people have greater mental capacities in dealing with events and unfortunately ego depleted individuals lack the resources available that non-depleted individuals have. Due to a lack of mental resources, these individuals cannot adhere to goals or set goals like non-depleted people easily can with their ego strength. Depleted individuals lack self-control due to the limited resources available they retain, however they are still able to do simple tasks that do not require a great deal of mental effort. It is presumed that depleted individuals have self-control to not engage in any tasks that would further harm their ego, but unfortunately this requires strength in order to maintain ones wellbeing which depleted people do not have. Depleted people do not have any strength at all, but do have emergency resources for future and high demands when needed, however there is a risk of burnout if they do not rest and replenish. In understanding how depleted individuals still put minimal energy into simple tasks compared to non-depleted individuals who use a lot of energy, the self-determination theory is able to help us understand how this process works based on past and recent studies. The conservation hypothesis further helps us understand minimal glucose in the bloodstream leads to poor executive functioning, hence poorer self-control leading to ego depletion. Examples of the presentation of incentives shows how effective they are in persuading the individuals self-control toward a specific task, especially financial incentives. On the biological level, interpersonal interactions and cognitions give insight into how ego depleted people differ from non-depleted people in the way they act and think. Most predominant is the poor emotional regulation, self-control and temptation levels. Fortunately, these individuals are able to seek help into restoring ego strength just by doing a few basic interventions which will lead into long term interventions if required.

See also[edit]


Alberts, H. J. E. M., Martijn, C., Greb, J., Merckelbach, H., & de Vries, N. K. (2007). Carrying on or giving in: The role of automatic processes in overcoming ego depletion. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46(2), 383–399.

Amatangelo, E. (2015). The Use of Cognitive Interventions in Reducing the Effects of Ego-Depletion. The BYU Undergraduate Journal in Psychology, 11(2).

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 125.

Bruyneel, S. D., Dewitte, S., Franses, P. H., & Dekimpe, M. G. (2009). I felt low and my purse feels light: Depleting mood regulation attempts affect risk decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 22, 153-170.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior.

DeBono, A. & Muraven, M. (2009). Where’s the trust? How self-control depletion undermines confidence in ability. Unpublished manuscript.

DeBono, A., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2011). Rude and inappropriate: The role of selfcontrol in following social norms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 136- 146

Fischer P, Greitemeyer T, & Frey D. (2007). Ego depletion and positive illusions: Does the construction of positivity require regulatory resources Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33.

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Heilman, A.M. (2016). Relationship Between Autonomous Motivation and Ego-Depletion. Walden University ScholarWorks 21.

Hofmann W, Friese M, & Roefs A. (2009). Three ways to resist temptation: The independent contributions of executive attention, inhibitory control, and affect regulation to the impulse control of eating behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Toward a physiology of dual-process reasoning and judgment: Lemonade, willpower, and expensive rule-based analysis. Psychological Science, 19, 255-260.

Mead, N. L., Baumeister, R. F., Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., & Ariely, D. (2009). Too tired to tell the truth: Self-control resource depletion and dishonesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 594-597.

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Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33-46.

Siesjö, B. K. (1978). Brain energy metabolism. Chichester ; New York: Wiley

Tyler, J. M., & Burns, K. C. (2008). After depletion: The replenishment of the self's regulatory resources. Self and Identity, 7, 305 - 321.

Vallerand, R. J., & Ratelle, C. F. (2002). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A hierarchical model. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research, 37-63.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Ciarocco, N. J. (2005). Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful self presentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 632-657.

Wang L, Tao T, Fan C, Gao W, & Wei C. (2015). The Influence of Chronic Ego Depletion on Goal Adherence: An Experience Sampling Study. PLoS One

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