Photo credit: John Tierney
Do we have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control? Most of the information from the blog comes from the August 21, 2011 Sunday Magazine. This is a very interesting article written on Decision fatigue written by John Tierney. Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. This article/blog discusses some background on decision fatigue, willpower and ego depletion and how that impacts dieters.
Experiments have demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they are then less able to resist other temptations and less likely to make better choices. For example, when attending a partying where there are numerous decisions about whether or not to eat cakes and cookies as the day progresses it becomes more difficult to stave off those cravings and less likely that someone will choose, lets say, carrots and celery over the cakes and cookies. (Keep reading there is more interesting information about eating and dieting at the bottom of this blog.)
Can we exhaust willpower?
Willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted and like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted.
Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.
In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.
It was proven that administering glucose completely reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion. Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.
Glucose, decision making and dieting!
The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:
1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar. After performing a lab task requiring self-control, people tend to eat more candy but not other kinds of snacks, like salty, fatty potato chips. The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets. A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control (that’s why it’s convenient to use in experiments), but it’s just a temporary solution. The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.
I think this research is very interesting and valuable. Several years ago I took a nutritional psychology class. The premise was not that we struggle with decision fatigue, will power and ego depletion due to lack of glucose but that in order to not be in fight or flight mode all day long (caused by carbohydrates and other sugars), it’s important to consistently fuel the body every 3-4 hours with a combination of good foods including proteins, vegetables and fruit; which is partially what this article is stating. Feed your body nutritious foods, frequently so you can make better choices and all around decisions!
I hope you are having a great day!