Ego fatigue and the pull of the present

Temptation strikes!

Okay, where were we? Ego fatigue. The empty-tank syndrome, losing your resolve when you’ve been trying too hard or for too long or both. The comment thread has been really valuable: Many of you know exactly what this feels like. And we seem to recognize that this phenomenon is critical when it comes to relapse.

The classic ego fatigue test was developed by a psychologist named Baumeister and published in a 1998 article in a standard psychology journal. He put hungry people into a room and left them alone with two bowls in front of them: a bowl of radishes and a bowl of chocolate-chip cookies. Half were instructed to have some cookies but no radishes; the other half were instructed to eat radishes only – no cookies. After only five minutes, the participants were asked to perform some cognitive tasks that require self-control. Those who’d had to resist temptation (cookies) performed more poorly or quit earlier. The interpretation was that they had “depleted” a resource needed for self-control.

In the same paper, another experiment was reported, one that’s at least as relevant. Participants watched a 10-minute video clip that was very emotionally arousing (either humorous or tragic). Half were asked to show no emotion on their faces, and the other half could behave normally. Those who had to suppress their emotions performed more poorly on subsequent tasks. Once again, something had been depleted.

These studies have the “toy” quality of many psychology experiments. But they seemed to tap something important. In the past 12 years, ego fatigue (or ego depletion) has been studied in many other labs, sometimes with very clever procedures and strong results. In the field of addiction research, there has been increasing recognition that ego fatigue is a serious problem for recovering addicts. But I’d say that those of us who have been addicts are the real experts.

If 5 minutes of resisting temptation actually lowers your cognitive control, what’s the impact of 5 hours? If 10 minutes of suppressing your feelings saps your cognitive reserves, imagine the impact of suppressing those feelings (deliberately and consciously) all day long, day after day. You know what I mean, and reader comments on the last two posts fill out many of the details. Rather than repeat them here, let’s move on.

Ego fatigue is not simple and it does not act in isolation. Many of us have expressed immense relief, triumph, or joy when we finally give way to temptation. At least for a while. Next post, I’ll write more about the “multiple personality” issue that I think is involved. For now, I want to mention one other psychological phenomenon that is joined at the hip with ego fatigue.

Delay discounting is the common finding that people (and animals!) will prefer an immediate reward of lower value to a later reward of higher value, even though there’s less overall gain. People who are naturally impulsive are the most prone. Delay discounting has a lot to do with dopamine’s short-sightedness. Dopamine enhances the draw of immediate goals, and that’s all it cares about. Your higher brain processes are supposed to look out for the future. So the dopamine rush of craving and the urgent pull of present opportunities are intimately linked in your brain. And the higher brain processes…well that’s the problem.

The following video, of kids in the “marshmallow test,” shows how agonizing it can be to fight present temptations.

The Marshmallow Test

This video also shows how we try to fight against delay discounting, especially when we know how DUMB it is to give in to immediate temptation (and when there’s a moral imperative to hold out). But what I really wanted you to see is the gyrations these kids go through, trying to resist. The whole task brings on massive ego fatigue for any 3-4-year old. It’s hard to keep resisting what’s right in front of you! And the ones who make it all the way sometimes seem to suffer most.

What’s different about the successful ones, if anything? They sniff it, fondle it, smell it, even kiss it, and then they look away. They scrunch up their little noses and they look away, or look down, or pretend it’s not there. That’s the point: they distance themselves from it, before ego fatigue overcomes them.

We addicts often “discount” the value of sobriety, because the payoff is in the future. Instead we break down and choose the immediate reward. We lunge for the marshmallow — sometimes after ego fatigue has already sapped our strength, and sometimes when we just want to skip the whole, familiar, gruelling process of self-denial.

But there is a way out. We can learn something from these 3-year-olds. Look away, look away. In fact, because we’re adults, we can go one better. Don’t just look away but get yourself out of the room, or out of the neighbourhood, or get the wine out of the house, before the “humming” takes over.

The 11th Commandment: Avoid temptation.

23 thoughts on “Ego fatigue and the pull of the present

  1. Daniel Efford February 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    “But what I really wanted you to see is the gyrations these kids go through, trying to resist.”

    This is most fascinating. What stages do we go through when fighting off temptation. We already know of different components, such as the “humming” phase that gives us internal dialogue, and we have the tipping point itself. So it’s not to say that there aren’t any stages to this.

    For myself, when I am presented with an urge, it doesn’t immediately start as a sharp drive to obtain. Usually it’s during a time when I’m already bored, or need to do something but don’t quite have the mental inertia. Then after that I start to rummage through ideas it doesn’t take long to realize that I want. And this is where the “humming” comes into play. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Etc. Somewhere between there and the tipping point there may be additional stages.

    Thoughts anyone?

    • Marc February 6, 2012 at 6:04 am #

      I am VERY familiar with these stages, and especially the insidious onset that comes before you even know you’re in motion. For me, internal dialogue is there throughout. It’s the gradual shift in the nature of that dialogue that may be the first serious warning sign. (that is, if you’re trying to be abstinent)

  2. Jaz February 5, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    In praise of freefall

    The kids were subjected to a cruel test that is perfectly appropriate for the way most of our culture works. My question is: How would the experiment change had the kids been offered to a) eat the marshmallow now, b) sit in the chair and wait, c) play hopscotch while they are waiting, or d) learn to make an origami dinosaur while expecting second marshmallow. The experiment obviously would not work since only in its cruel and austere version does it replicate reigning values. While these additional options may seem merely as distractions I see a qualitative difference. Gyrating was a distraction, whereas playing would mean being lost in the game; giving themselves over to a completely different, more compelling experience–a freefall of a different kind. What would happen if we abandoned the restraint imperative and started thinking along the lines of powerful, enriching experiences. Perhaps, some kids would still eat a marshmallow, but I bet that there will be lots of origami dinosaurs in the room as well. So if restraining the pull of an addiction is the adult equivalent of waiting in the chair, what are the adult equivalents of origami dinosaurs?
    In this discussion I am uniquely under-qualified and never thought of posting a comment. I am neither a neuroscientist, nor an addict, which is not to say that I haven’t (over)indulged here and there. However a recent experience prompted me to write a comment. I intended to take a short break and read the discussion I have missed in the past several weeks. In the middle of reading about the ego fatigue I experienced a moment of self-awareness. As I have mentioned I am not an addict yet the text clarified the need that I was not even aware of–I needed a freefall.
    Herein lies the link with this blog. The brain, neurological processes and the psyche of an addict did not seem that different from my brain, processes and psyche usually classified as normal. I felt urgent need to abandon myself. This particular need arose, I think, due to the lack of desirable sensory experiences, and too much work drudgery, which prompted me to think about general yet paradoxical sensory poverty of our culture. We seem to be bombarded by sensory stimuli, yet somehow we trained our senses, bodies and psyches to behave with utmost restraint. I do not experience anymore the intense dissolution of the self when I’m dancing for hours. But I do remember it as a possibility. I can think of several other experiences that do the same. Counter-intuitively, this may mean that addicts of all stripes are more, rather than less, self-aware. (Isn’t that what they are often accused of?) They risk doing something about what many others experience as disgusting emotional flatness of life and medicate (more or less successfully) with antidepressants. So, in that sense Johns Hopkins people may be onto something, but there are so many instances of deeply meaningful experiences of trance not caused by intoxication. Many cultures have cultivated practices that have traditionally been described as Dionysian. I am wandering whether we could pick one or two of their mental techniques. As much as I am all in favour of meditation, the reason it took on is the preference for more, not less mental regulation. Is there a chance for a bit broader spectrum of mental, sensory and bodily practices? Can we learn abandonment? What if they could work as good dinosaurs and substantially fortify long-term recovery? Perhaps, a graduate program in neurosciences of ecstatic experiences, altogether with firewalkers stuffed in MRI’s is what doctors should order as the next study.
    I long to see the ways to free people from horrible experiences they go through when hooked on drugs and wish to see my friends live better as ultimately drugs lead to the worst sensory poverty of them all. For that reason I read the blog. However I don’t see that the rest of us are in any lesser need of help. Collectively, we created the environment of psychological misery and the entire culture needs not only more, but qualitatively better, origami dinosaurs. So, what are we going to do about that?

    • china February 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

      “…what are we going to do about that?”

      I think the doctors prescribing trance sessions and firewalking MRIs sounds like an excellent start. I’m off to phone my health provider company to see if they will cover my ‘therapeutic all night dancing” sessions too.

      • jaz February 15, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

        I sincerely apologise if my comment has offended you. As I have understood the aim of research into ego fatigue is to increase our internal resources and find ways that would allow us to manage both the states of our psyche and our behaviour. Different societies have devised different ways to that. Ours relies on medication more than anything else and as you have suggested that is the only thing that will be available as treatment. It may or may not increase our ability to deal with ego fatigue challenges in the future. I just wanted to see whether there is a chance to study and implement some other techniques that could, perhaps, supplement therapies prescribed by the doctors. Meditation is the one studied most often and it has shown to indeed change our brains. Perhaps we could study other ones as well. But you are absolutely right, these things aren’t available, even worse, they are considered wacky and ridiculous. Perhaps they are, but we won’t know what happens in the brain of the firewalker till they do come up with their brain imaging, will we? I am still convinced that there is a space for a dialogue between anthropology and neurosciences even though it may not produce results ready for immediate therapeutic use.

        • china February 15, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

          Jaz! In no way was I offended. I actually would get a kick out of making that phone call to advocate for insurance coverage for my 3 day “therapeutic binges” at a music festival or the installation of 20k of hypnotic nightclub lights in my basement.

          I’d them it would be a proactive prevention strategy since 20k is way lower than the health issued and addiction treatment I’ll need if I actually *do* pick the dope back up.

          I would very much like to see research on that. So no worries mate. we’re all good.

      • jaz February 15, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

        P.S. Narrowing down of what is possible within specific mode of medical reasoning causes all sorts of things. Gabor Maté had to interrupt what he was doing. But, of course, thinking about this leads to questions about organisation, set up and financing of research and examination of medical and pharmaceutical research is an entirely different can of worms that deserves a blog on its own.

        • china February 15, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

          Indeed. I hail from Akron, OH which has the distinction of being the “birthplace of aa”. So I get jumped ALL over when I promote Dr. Mate’s brilliant work with ayuasca. From what I have read, and the personal account of those who have received the therapy, I think I would be a great candidate for it helping with the long-standing effects from trauma which are annoying and embarrassing to me.

          I am very open to other avenues which may work on an individual case basis to make the addicted mind more “at home” in itself and therefore less likely to look for something else to fill those potholes in the soul.

          • Marc February 18, 2012 at 10:41 am #

            This dialogue itself has a fire-walking or perhaps high-wire flair to it. It’s funny but Gabor Mate’s experiments with ayahuasca came to my mind, after reading Jaz’s comment about “learning abandonment” even before reading China’s latest reply.

            Ayahuasca seems like jumping off a cliff. Probably because “learning abandonment” is almost a contradiction in terms, we do things like bungee-jumping or ayahuasca. We get to the edge and push ourselves off, knowing that abandonment is sure to come.

            Mate’s (reported) success with ayahuasca, as a treatment for serious narcotics addicts, seems like initial support for Jaz’s point. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than abandonment. There is some sort of visionary experience which people often see as guided. (I’ve never taken ayahuasca myself, but there is a neuroscientist in my university who actually went to the Amazon, about two years ago, and brain-imaged people while they were doing it. He says he’s going back, and I’m determined to come along.)

            Besides, as the comments on this and previous posts attest, abandonment can cut both ways. It can provide the relief from boredom that we need, but it can also lead us to fall into another more permanent kind of boredom — addiction itself. Then again, maybe that’s not a fair comparison. Because somewhere between giving into the urge to take drugs or booze and the moment of getting them down your gullet, nose, or whatever, there’s always a spell of pure insight: this is not freedom….this is habit. But by then you can’t stop.

  3. Marc February 6, 2012 at 5:57 am #

    Fascinating! Thanks for joining the discussion. Indeed, I agree that the difference between addict and non-addict is sometimes very small. Arbitrary events can send us down one path or the other, though being in pain is an excellent qualification for becoming an addict. And I agree that the poverty of our cultural milieu and our inner lives creates the need to get somewhere else, whether through dance, meditation, trance, or medication (a little rhyme). I also agree that addicts are more self-aware — often far more — than others…. That’s partly what got them into this mess in the first place, but it’s also a product of the addiction, which involves frequent struggle with oneself. Of course if you take enough really nasty shit, a lot of your awareness is reduced to a pin-hole, and admittedly that’s a lousy answer to a challenge that can be both a curse and a blessing.

    Let’s see what others have to say.

  4. Marc February 6, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    P.S. We can blame the culture all we want, but it is what it is. Our species was never perfect when it comes to killing time. Sitting in front of a marshmallow is a big improvement over watching the local hanging or witch-burning to combat boredom.

    In fact, I think it’s good and right that the experiment simulates the isolation and struggle we often feel in the world we live in. Psychological experiments are supposed to offer insights into how we deal with reality, however imperfect it may be.

    • Mike Johnson February 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

      This could be a “loose association” here :-). Very intriguing though boredom, executions, marshmallows, drugs…hmmm

  5. Hal February 6, 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Hi Marc,
    Regarding ‘ego fatigue’ , losing resolve, and so on. The experiments *are* fascinating. The phenomena do seem real They also raise questions I can’t help asking. “Ego fatigue” sounds rather Freudian. What’s the relation of ‘ego fatigue’ to a brain biochemical account? Is there hope for a real explanation in terms of depletion of chemical X in region Y? I’m not at all trying to raise some argument that the mind and its events are independent of a material substratum, of electrical and biochemical events there. And of course these events form causal chains, obey ‘laws’ (patterns) and so on. But, to use a term you used before, is there likely to be a way to say look at a scan and say “Here is the pivot point”?

    In a larger sense, I’m wondering if all the useful common sense terms that recovering addicts use can *in principle* be cashed out to the degree where prediction is possible. Or are we stuck with essentially ‘after the fact’ drawing of parallels. That is, once we have the ‘fatigue’ or ‘pivot’, looking at the brain and saying “Here are the parallel events.” If the last is the case, then the narratives in common sense terms, rich ones, such as quoted in this blog, are irreduceable. Their events can only be explained in the terms that we see: My resolution faded; I took the drug. If asked ‘why’ the first event, one could only say, “My thoughts dwelt upon the temptation for too long” and so on.

    I hope this is at least partly clear. There are deep and complex issues, and this blog can, I hope, shed light on them.

    • Marc February 10, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      Hi Hal.
      The term “ego fatigue” may be unfortunate. This model is not Freudian. But it does pinpoint a mechanism of self-control and self-direction, very much like Freud’s idea of the ego. And, yes, there are specific brain events involved. In fact my own research is turning that way. We think the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is the epicentre. This area is responsible for action-monitoring, response inhibition, directed attention, and so forth. I think of it as the bridge of the ship. It’s where the brain monitors itself and makes corrections when we go off course, or chooses one alternative over another when there’s a difficult choice to be made. It’s also the area that “lights up” in some tests of executive function (cognitive control). I’ll bet it’s burning hot in these 3-year-olds!

      For the second issue you raise, please see my post on Oct. 21st: Not quite free will. Here I follow Nico Frijda’s argument: that there may be a stream of biological events that proceed on their own, sure enough. So all our brain knowledge may only clarify the details of that chain of events. Yet, there are moments in that stream when we can reflect, maybe because we have slowed down in our impulsive thrust, or maybe because our mood has changed in some other way. In those moments of reflection, we can guide and even change the cascade of brain events. This is a “compatibilist” account that allows for a truce between the idea of biological determinism (which we all hate) and the idea of free will (which we often find difficult to believe in fully). And by the way, there are brain areas whose job it is to exert intention — like the supplementary motor area: a mundane term for a very important mechanism!

      • Mike Johnson February 26, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

        Your writing here is excellent really, it “translates” so well for me .

  6. The Bus Driver February 7, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    “Avoid temptation” — amen to that!


    “We addicts often “discount” the value of sobriety, because the payoff is in the future. Instead we break down and choose the immediate reward.”

    So true … to which I would add that discounting is based on a skewed sense of what is rewarding. We don’t see the rewards of staying in the here and now. Can we somehow retrain the brain to perceive sobriety itself as the immediate reward we crave, rather than as a distant payoff? Can we somehow shift the foundation of our value judgement so it’s more in line with the way non-addicts perceive things? (Or is there even such a thing as a non-addict? Are we all addicted to something?)

  7. Marc February 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    What you are saying reminds me of those sudden moments of beauty and freedom, when you notice the tracery of tree branches or the beauty in your kids’ faces. Indeed, why isn’t “sobriety” an immediate reward that we can acknowledge and go for? I’ve never been too crazy about the term “sobriety”, though I know it has enormously important associations in the world of alcoholism. The Dutch term for addiction is “enslavement”. The opposite of enslavement would be “freedom”. If we replaced the term “sobriety” with “freedom”, not just in our vocabulary but deep in our minds, maybe it wouldn’t feel like another kind of prison while we’re desperately trying to stay abstinent.

    I think that the unfiltered present is not very attractive when we’re in pain, when craving is on high, when the amygdala is throbbing with danger signals, and we feel ashamed, sad or angry. Then “the present” is not going to feel rewarding whatever name we give it.

    • Donnie Mac June 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

      I’ve entered the game of pricks
      With knives in the back of me
      Can’t call you or on you no more
      When they’re attacking me

      I’ll climb up on the house
      Weep to water the trees
      And when you come calling me down
      I’ll put on my disease

      You could never be strong
      You can only be free
      And I’ve never asked for the truth
      But you owe that to me

      Game of Pricks
      Guided by Voices .

      • Marc July 1, 2012 at 2:09 am #


      • Donnie Mac July 1, 2012 at 11:10 am #

        I always Loved the line “You can never be strong , you can only be free ”
        Robert Pollack wrote some wonderful , powerful lyrics .

  8. Robyn February 17, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Hi Marc!

    This blog and its responses have explicitly stated so many of my feelings and provoked countless self-reflecting questions. It makes me excited to work on myself as I feel like I am finding the meat and potatoes, if you will, of why I continue do the irratic things I do.

    One thing I wanted to share was a video series of Daniel Amen speaking about how to change the brain. It was actually the beginning of an all night internet search that led me to your site. He talks about the functions of the anterior cingulate gyrus and, as I listened, I thought BINGO! that’s probably where I’m so hyperactive. It’s the part of my brain I envision making all my decisions as I lose awareness, control, and care while falling so “blissfully” into my safe routines. I think it would be helpful some that need to visualize the brain and his tips for how to change the brain have helped. I think he goes though the addicted brain in the fifth video.

    My addiction is not drugs, alcohol, porn or any of the conventionally thought of addictions, it is food. I am the bulimic and it has taken me longer than I would like to admit to fully understand how it is an addiction but a binge is my ultimate escape from negative thought, emotion and responsibility and I keep going back. I found the comment regarding the massive number of neuron pathways in the intestinal region pretty fascinating and am interested to discover the depth of their function. I believe I have induced ADHD-like symptoms on myself from the constant flood of sugar, carbs, and fat then immediate removal from my body. Blood sugar freaks, dopamine and serotonin are flooding everywhere and I then beat myself with guilt, remorse, anger, even pity, and get anxious about all the time I wasted, the damage I did to my body and how I’m going stop from doing it next time. Ego fatigue starts kicking not even 15 minutes after…

    • Marc February 18, 2012 at 11:13 am #

      Hi Robyn. Thanks for joining us. There are so many kinds of addiction, and indeed addictions to purging or other forms of physical self-harm (and/or food addictions) are not uncommon.

      The part of your brain that underlies compulsions is actually the striatum, a much more primitive region than the anterior cingulate gyrus. The anterior cingulate is actually trying to decide what’s the best thing to do, in a more deliberate, even conscious, way. These two regions are probably at odds with each other when you are fighting your compulsions. But the primitive mechanisms of compulsion are pretty powerful: they get locked onto one path of action…then they stay locked onto it until the action is complete. That’s the trouble.

      I know the book and I looked a bit at the Youtube video. I think Daniel Amen can be useful, but he oversimplifies. I don’t believe that brains are either working right or not…and everyone knows (at least I hope they do) that the structure and state of your brain determines much of your personality and behaviour. Yet his message about brain plasticity — its capacity to change — seems very important. One of the things that fascinates me is why, given that immense plasticity, our habits remain so rigid much of the time.

      • Mike Johnson February 26, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

        I do not recall if I bounced you the link but extensive scans are being done on autistic children and my take is there are many profound morphological variations in brains that sharply affect their function.
        I am thinking that it is the incredible epigenetic growth pattern in infant human brains and how easily that might be influenced by conditions outside the cranium.
        One reflects on neurons literally migrating like caterpillars along paths marked by attracting and repelling chemical signals. So one might kind profound anatomical arrangements- let us take dyslexia as a seemingly straight forward condition but often there us substantial anatomical dislocation.
        Now, suddenly we are weighing Patient A’s PFC. Is there enough “meat” there ro profitably regulate impulses? Are the white matter tracts sufficiently thick? wow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *