Ego Depletion and Parenting

BrainMy recent experiences as a new father have brought me to become interested in a concept in psychology called Ego Depletion. There’s a fair amount of scientific evidence backing up the idea that your ability to exert self-control/willpower is contingent on the use of some depletable resource in your brain. If, over a period of time, you exercise your will in a concentrated fashion, your ability to continue to do so diminishes. The longer or more intense the use, the faster and more completely your self-control suffers.

This effect explains why people “break down on the stand” in cross-examinations. It also explains why people on “reality” TV shows, who know full well they are being watched and will be judged by millions, still often say or do the meanest, stupidest things to each other with no thought for the consequences. In my opinion, one’s capacity for ego depletion probably also explains most of the difference between introverts and extroverts; Consider the effort expended in concentration and maintaining appearances when “schmoozing” at a party, and how that effort can leave even the *most* extroverted feeling emotionally exhausted. Then, consider how one would feel in that situation if their “ego reserve” was significantly smaller than a social butterfly’s!

This is kind of a scary concept, when you think about it. No matter how good a person you are, no matter how disciplined a person you are, you always know there’s a little bit of monster in you. Most of us, when annoyed by someone, feel an urge to say something hurtful or brusque. Likewise, words spoken in anger often urge a person to commit violence. We have urges to take what we want, do what we want, take pleasure in others’ pain, and so on. Most of the time, we resist these urges, but what if?

What if we get caught up in a long argument? What if we, through random chance, experience a whole bunch of mishaps all in a row, each requiring intense decision-making or control of the urge to curse and/or yell? What if we have to sit with a cranky baby for ten straight hours? What if we find ourselves in a difficult situation after experiencing these things? Does the monster get out, whether we want it to or not?

I can tell you this from experience. Caring for a cranky baby requires constant attention, troubleshooting, and physical engagement. Ten minutes caring for a cranky baby is a stressful situation. Forty-five minutes caring for a cranky baby makes you want to cry right along with him. Two hours caring for a cranky baby makes you want to scream, punch things, and curse the gods. Ten hours in, especially at four in the morning, you are literally a blubbering lump, collapsed in the corner. Just for a moment, think about the momentary urges you might feel in that situation. Now consider that that situation is perfectly designed to produce ego depletion. As a father, it scares me shitless!

There is good news, though. Some studies show that you can achieve “ego replenishment” through feeling positive emotions. They’ve used surprise gifts, comedy videos, and feel-good pep-talks, all of which tend to diminish the effect. I myself have discovered that even a brief meditation can significantly rebuild my ability to exert will in ego depleting situations like taking care of an inconsolable infant son by myself for the better part of a day. The irony? To achieve any of these improvements, you need to still have the self-control (and available time) to go looking for them in the first place…