A new perspective on immediate gratification

Decision fatigue and ego depletion: Implications for behaviour change

In a fascinating essay in the New York Times (thanks to Michael Rothschild for the signpost), John Tierney outlines a bank of research into ‘Decision Fatigue’, a specific example of the more general phenomenon, Ego Depletion.

Through his analysis, Ego Depletion emerges as powerful explanatory and predictive concept that sheds new light on a wide range of behaviour change issues. I’ve listed some at the bottom of the page to prompt further discussion, but for the purposes of this piece I’m going to focus on health inequalities and the crude, class-based dichotomy that seeks to account for them in terms of ‘immediate’ and ‘deferred gratification’.In very basic terms, the concept of Ego Depletion is based on the fact that agency requires energy. That is, in asserting our will or carrying out any intentional behaviour, we are drawing on a finite stock of mental energy. It therefore follows that if those stocks are running low, we are less able to assert our will and carry out the behaviour.

Tierney anchors the piece with an example from Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. Analysing the decisions made by an Israeli parole board, they found there is a 70% chance of prisoners being paroled in the early morning slots, compared with only a 10% chance in the late afternoon slots. The differential is put down to the build up of decision fatigue throughout the day, in the face of which the panel take short cuts or default to less risky decisions.

As fascinating as the concept of ‘decision fatigue’ is, the essay becomes more directly relevant to our behaviour change context when Tierney steps back to discuss Ego Depletion more generally and the more unconscious, less rational processes associated with will power.

At the level of theory, the concept of ‘mental energy’ is intuitively attractive and has strong explanatory power. However, far from being ‘just’ a theory, modern neuroscience has located an empirical foundation for the concept linked to the amount of glucose we have available to our system.

To caricature some rather heavy neuroscience, the more glucose we have, the more able the part of our brain associated with restraint (the amygdala) is to control our urges. As we exercise our willpower, the amygdyla tires, but the part of the brain associated with seeking reward (the nucleus accumbens) doesn’t. In a literal battle of will—id vs superego—the latter simply gasses out.

(I’m sure the excruciating irony that a quick sugary snack might strengthen will power is not lost on the millions of erstwhile dieters.)

Coming back to immediate and deferred gratification: Although these concepts of have taken root in popular consciousness, they represent a scribbled caricature of human motivation that has been damaging for so many reasons, not least the way in which it has helped further divide the working class into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ camps.

At The Hub we sharpen this blunt analysis using the concept hierarchies of need. That is, the notion that as human beings (using Maslow’s model), we have stratified types of need, ranging from imperative physiological needs for food, shelter and companionship, to more refined, higher order ones associated with ‘self-actualisation’ or the realisation of potential.

By working closely with a community it is possible to ascertain how this concept applies specifically to them—to delineate their particular hierarchies of need, given their social, economic and cultural conditions. This more incisive analysis gives us an understanding of ‘immediate gratification’ that becomes a springboard for effective intervention design, rather than a label to justifiy fatalism in the face of the intransigent habits of the great unwashed. That is, when a family is still struggling to satisfy its imperative physiological needs, you can begin to understand why appeals to grab your 5-a-day, get your bowel screen, see your doctor, concentrate at school etc… get crowded out.

This exact approach has directly driven intervention design in a number of our areas of our work, including child poverty and breastfeeding.

However, Tierney’s analysis of Ego Depletion adds a few more carriages to this train of thought and offers an empirical, neurological foundation. In his own words:

“…researchers argue that…decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

In short, because the purchasing decisions that low income families make have such a significant knock-on effect, the process of weighing up the variables and executing a risky decision is exhausting.

I’m sure there are counter arguments that leverage the same same logic: professional class jobs are characterised by decision-making and its consequences, whilst manual jobs associated with routine and repetitive processes. As such, the former should be at least as susceptible to the vagaries of immediate gratification as much as the latter. However, there’s no escaping the fact that the concept of Ego Depletion offers considerable (glucose-rich) food for thought as we attempt refine our understanding of why we do what we do.

Food for thought

  • If will power is dynamic, what implications does this have for the behavioural theories that we use? As far as I know only, Robert West’s PRIME theory factors in the varying levels of motivation over time.
  • How can we design interventions that take account of varying levels of motivation?
  • If ego depletion also linked to glucose levels, should we be incorporating eat habits and patterns into our insight gathering as a matter of course.
  • Can we empower people, but simply informing them about ego depletion i.e. that they should expect dips in motivation related to decision fatigue etc?
  • Can we use technology to empower through feedback mechanisms eg colour-coded arm patch, sensitive to glucose levels?

We see Ego Depletion as another example of how science is increasingly finding neurological bases for previously theoretical psychological constructs. The Collaborative Change approach is in part an attempt to respond to the new insights into human behaviour that cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and network theory are giving us. We see this trend continuing, challenging the behaviour change community to respond and  increasing the opportunities to understand people and empower them to rise to their challenges.


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