YANSS Podcast 032 – Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged

The Topic: Ego Depletion

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Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on "It's Me or The Dog" on Animal Planet

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on “It’s Me or The Dog” on Animal Planet

One of my favorite tropes in fiction is the idea of the perfect thinker – the person who has shed all the baggage of being an emotional human being and could enjoy the freedom and glory of pure logic, if only he or she could feel joy.

Spock, Data, Seven of Nine, Sherlock Holmes, Mordin Solus, Austin James, The T-1000 – there are so many variations of the idea. In each fictional world, these beings accomplish amazing feats thanks to possessing cold reason devoid of all those squishy feelings. Not being very good at telling jokes or hanging out at parties are among their only weaknesses.

It’s a nice fantasy, to imagine without emotions one could become super-rational and thus achieve things other people could not. It suggests that we often see emotion as a weakness, that many people wish they could be more Spockish. But the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio suggests that such a thing would be a nightmare. In his book, “Decarte’s Error” he describes patients who, because of an accident or a disorder, are no longer able to feel silly or annoyed or hateful or anything else. If they can, those feelings just graze them, never taking hold. Damasio explains that these patients, emotionally barren, are rendered powerless to choose a path in life. They can’t ascribe value to anything. Their world is flat. Despite remaining very intelligent and able to carry on conversations, they no longer make good decisions. Former business owners will lose all their money on bad investments. People who used to work from home will become lost in constantly reorganizing their shelves. Not only are their decisions flawed, but reaching conclusions becomes an excruciating process. When Damasio handed one of these patients two pens, one red and one blue, and asked him to fill out a questionnaire, the man was lost. To choose red over blue using logic alone took about half an hour. Every pro and con was listed, every branching possibility of future outcomes considered. Damasio wrote that “when emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.” Judgments and decisions corrupted by bias and passion are the only way we ever get anything done.

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Ego Depletion

The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.

The Truth: Willpower is a finite resource.

Forever Alone by Lysgaard
(Source: Lysgaard)

In 2005, a team of psychologists made a group of college students feel like scum.

The researchers invited the undergraduates into their lab and asked the students to just hang out for a while and get to know each other. The setting was designed to simulate a casual meet-and-greet atmosphere, you know, like a reception or an office Christmas party – the sort of thing that never really feels all that casual?

The students divided into same-sex clusters of about six people each and chatted for 20 minutes using conversation starters provided by the researchers. They asked things like “Where are you from?” and “What is your major?” and “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Researchers asked the students beforehand to make an effort to learn each other’s names during the hang-out period, which was important, because the next task was to move into a room, sit alone, and write down the names of two people from the fake party with whom the subjects would most like to be partnered for the next part of the study. The researchers noted the responses and asked the students to wait to be called. Unbeknownst to the subjects, their choices were tossed aside while they waited.

The researchers – Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan DeWall, Natalie J. Ciarocco and Jean M. Twenge of Florida State, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State universities – then asked the young men and women to proceed to the next stage of the activity in which the subjects would learn, based on their social skills at the party, what sort of impression they had made on their new acquaintances. This is where it got funky.

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