Let’s begin by defining something psychologists call “ego depletion.” This is the idea that all of us have only a certain amount of self-control, and if we use up too much in one part of our lives, we will have less to use in others.
An early example came from a 1998 study in which participants were tempted with a chocolate treat before being given a difficult puzzle: Those who resisted the temptation seemed to have used up some of their willpower, because they gave up on the puzzle faster than the treat eaters.
There have been many subsequent studies about ego depletion, including its apparent effects on physical performance: In 2012, athletes who were given a difficult mental task before a physical challenge exhibited less determination to do well on the sports test than those who hadn’t done the puzzle.
But recently a replication study (in which researchers repeat a published experiment to see if they come up with the same results) tested more than 2,000 participants at 24 labs and found the ego depletion effect to be very small or nonexistent. I Which, as Lea Winerman reports, has led such psychologists as Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto to a crisis of confidence. Maybe, he thinks, ego depletion and the other social psychological effects he has made a career of studying are “proven” by unreliable research.
“I used to think there were errors, but that the errors were minor and it was fine,” Winerman quotes Inzlicht as saying in the June issue of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. “But as I started surveying the field, I started thinking we’ve been making some major mistakes.”
What kind of mistakes? One example is what Winerman calls the“file drawer problem.” As in other fields, journals of psychology want to publish positive results. “So when researchers find a positive result in the lab, they write it up for publication. When they find a negative result, they shove it in their file drawer — leaving the research literature rife with unchallenged false positives.”
Winerman uses ego depletion to illuminate the broader current debate over research methods in psychology — what has been called the “replication crisis.” Last summer, a group called the Open Science Collaboration said that its attempts to replicate 100 social and cognitive psychology studies found that only 36 percent produced significant results.Although the crisis began with critics claiming they couldn’t replicate long-trusted studies, it has moved on to challenging the methodology of the critics themselves. Professionals in the field worry that the ongoing arguments could undermine psychology’s public image.
“If your faith is not shaken, you’re not paying attention or you’re in state of denial,” Inzlicht says. But he adds that the controversy has an upside: “We’re better off now than we were yesterday, or 10 or 20 years ago, even if it means we overturn findings. If something is not true, it’s obviously better to know.”