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The Theory of Ego Exhaustion: Are There Limited Mental Resources?

The theory of ego exhaustion suggests that there is a state of attrition of psychic energy so important that it can impair the ability to self-regulate, at least temporarily.

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The theory of ego exhaustion suggests that there is a state of attrition of psychic energy so important that it can impair the ability to self-regulate, at least temporarily.

Among other things, this theory has allowed us to answer questions such as: why is it more difficult to perform a task after exposing ourselves to wear and tear or mental conflict? What are the events that generate ego exhaustion? Do efforts to contain behavior generate a decrease in our self-regulation?

Through numerous studies, the exhaustion model has allowed us to analyze the elements involved in our ability to make decisions and execute tasks that involve mental effort. In this article we will see what the above consists of and through what studies it has been explained, as well as some manifestations of this psychological phenomenon in everyday life.

Theory of ego exhaustion: is self-regulation limited?

One of the subjects most studied by psychology has been self-regulation, considered as the capacity of the “I” to alter its own behavior. This capacity is very useful in adaptive terms, since it allows us to adjust our actions to the demands of the environment.
In this sense, self-regulation implies a set of decisions we make to contain an impulse or behavior. That is, there is an important component of “will”, which in turn depends on the ability of the “I” to exercise it.

From the first psychoanalytic theories, the “I” (the “ego”) has been described as a part of the psyche that must constantly deal with external reality, mediating between internal conflicts or desires and external pressures. But this is not achieved from nothing. To reach it, the ego has to make use of an important level of psychic energy.

In more recent times, theories such as ego exhaustion confirm that there is a type of energy or psychic force involved in volitional acts. That being the case, psychic energy is an indispensable resource for us to achieve self-regulation. But do we have unlimited reserves of that energy? If not, what happens with our will?

The theory of exhaustion suggests precisely that, depending on the energy available to us, we can initiate voluntary behavior, or not (we will quickly desist from the tasks due to lack of energy resources). In other words, self-regulation can be modified if there has been a prior exhaustion of psychic energy.

Baumeister and other representative studies

Psychologist Roy Baumeister, a pioneer in this theory, defines “ego depletion” (ego depletion, originally) as a state in which the “I” does not have all the resources it normally possesses. For this reason, some of the executive functions that it is responsible for (such as self-regulation, decision making and behavioral activation) depend on how many of those resources have been consumed or are available.

This researcher proposes that an important part of the “I” has limited resources, which are used for all acts that imply self-will. That is to say that, being limited, the resources do not reach for all the acts, at least not if they are presented consecutively.

Thus, as a psychological phenomenon, ego exhaustion makes the “I” temporarily less capable and less willing to function optimally, deteriorating later tasks. In other words, after making an important mental effort, the “I” is exhausted, generating a state of fatigue or relaxation in which the person’s capacity to self-regulate worsens.

In fact, some studies have found that the efforts we make to adapt to stressful situations involve a “psychic cost” that is so high that it damages or impairs subsequent activity (even if it involves activities that are not related to the stress situation).

For example, the mental efforts made to contain behaviors that generate pleasure; like when we try hard to follow a diet, and at the first opportunity to enjoy a pleasant food our self-regulation drops considerably (we eat more).

Another example is a study where it was shown that when a person tries not to think of a white bear, this exercise of self-regulation generates so much ego exhaustion, that people surrender faster when performing a later task (although apparently they have nothing to do with the white bear, as an anagram test).

Likewise, other investigations in ego exhaustion theory suggest that important mental efforts, such as cognitive dissonance and emotional repression, generate ego exhaustion and affect subsequent decision making. In the same sense, some studies have suggested that the greater the ego’s exhaustion, the less sense of guilt and / or empathy. And with this, less likelihood of exercising prosocial behaviors.

How to recover the energy of ego?

As we have seen, the exhaustion of the ego is a phenomenon present in many of our daily activities. But this theory has not only allowed us to analyze the repercussions of the wearing down of psychic energy in our decisions, capacities and behavior.

The theory of ego exhaustion has also allowed us to analyze the importance of basic issues to compensate for fatigue, such as rest. Braumeister himself, together with his collaborators, have suggested that there are compensatory and restorative measures of psychic force: mainly positive sleep and emotional experiences.

In the same vein, other researchers have studied the compensation of ego exhaustion through enjoyable and gratifying physiological experiences. For example, trying foods or drinks with high glucose content.

In the same sense has been an important activation of the heart rate before the high effort to exercise self-control (effort that is higher to more level of exhaustion), which means that the psychic effort has direct repercussions in our body.

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