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What Is Ego Depletion?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ego depletion describes a theory about a person’s limited ability to solve problems using cognitive thinking, or exhibit self-control, when energy needed for complex tasks has been used up. It is based on the concept that humans possess limited resources to regulate how they process complicated information and regulate emotions. When this energy becomes drained, it causes ego depletion and impairs the ability to perform tasks that require self-control.

Psychologists believe the ego regulates the executive functioning of the brain when a person faces jobs needing active attention, logic, or reasoning. This internal ability allows a person to analyze facts to reach conclusions and make choices. It also permits a person to exercise willpower to control emotions and behavior. Late in the day, this finite resource wanes and ego depletion sets in.

Researchers found depletion only hinders a person’s ability to use reasoning and logic in problem solving, referred to as the active function of the self. Information stored in memory as general knowledge, such as vocabulary, does not require active control and is not affected by ego depletion. This inactive functioning allows a person to perform simple tasks that appear automatic.

Ego depletion might explain why dieters can resist temptation to eat fattening foods early in the day. The theory suggests that by the end of the day, energy used for self-control is drained, and the ability to control emotional behavior becomes impaired. Another example describes how a couple might argue when they return home from work because resources needed for emotional self-control were drained by complex thinking in the workplace.

A central section of the brain regulates executive functions by processing visual information, interpreting mental images, and analyzing verbal input, according to these theories. A person needs focused attention to actively process this type of data, which relies on the level of energy in this part of the brain. Limited resources are available to maintain self-control and motivation to actively stick with the job when faced with distractions. Studies show the brain uses one-fifth of all calories consumed to function properly, even though it only represents two percent of total body weight. When the caloric energy is gone, ego depletion sets in and intellect suffers.

Some psychologists say sleep deprivation contributes to ego depletion because mental energy regenerates when rested. They suggest planning important tasks early in the day and becoming cognizant of symptoms of ego depletion. Hunger, anger, sadness, and other emotional upsets that deplete energy also might factor into a person’s ability to make logical decisions.

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