Psychological principle debunked

O’S News Service March 10  A piece from Slate by Daniel Engber, though way over-sold in the headline and subhead, makes an important point: truths established in “the literature” are not always true. Excerpts follow, with our comments in italics: 

Everything Is Crumbling

An influential psychological theory, borne out in hundreds of experiments, may have just been debunked. How can so many scientists have been so wrong?

Everything is indeed crumbling, but not because the findings of Drs. Baumeister and Tice have been exposed as jive. (Some editor was trying to make a pun involving the cookies.)  And since when did psychologists become “scientists?”

Nearly 20 years ago, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice, a married couple at Case Western Reserve University, devised a foundational experiment on self-control. “Chocolate chip cookies were baked in the room in a small oven,” they wrote in a paper that has been cited more than 3,000 times. “As a result, the laboratory was filled with the delicious aroma of fresh chocolate and baking.”

…Baumeister and Tice stacked their fresh-baked cookies on a plate, beside a bowl of red and white radishes, and brought in a parade of student volunteers. They told some of the students to hang out for a while unattended, eating only from the bowl of radishes, while another group ate only cookies. Afterward, each volunteer tried to solve a puzzle, one that was designed to be impossible to complete.

Baumeister and Tice timed the students in the puzzle task, to see how long it took them to give up. They found that the ones who’d eaten chocolate chip cookies kept working on the puzzle for 19 minutes, on average—about as long as people in a control condition who hadn’t snacked at all. The group of kids who noshed on radishes flubbed the puzzle test. They lasted just eight minutes before they quit in frustration.

On the other hand,  the radish eaters —sharper because they weren’t digesting starch and sugar from cookies— could have sensed the puzzle test was impossible to finish and quit soonest not because they flubbed it but because they aced it. 

The authors called this effect “ego depletion” and said it revealed a fundamental fact about the human mind: We all have a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse.

Isn’t this obvious nonsense?

Eating a radish when you’re surrounded by fresh-baked cookies represents an epic feat of self-denial, and one that really wears you out. Willpower, argued Baumeister and Tice, draws down mental energy—it’s a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion.

That simple idea—perhaps intuitive for nonscientists, but revolutionary in the field—turned into a research juggernaut. In the years that followed, Baumeister and Tice’s lab, as well as dozens of others, published scores of studies using similar procedures. First, the scientists would deplete subjects’ willpower with a task that requires self-control: don’t eat chocolate chip cookies, watch this sad movie but don’t react at all. Then, a few minutes later, they’d test them with a puzzle, a game, or something else that requires mental effort.

Psychologists discovered that lots of different tasks could drain a person’s energy and leave them cognitively depleted… Poverty-stricken day laborers in rural India might wear themselves out simply by deciding whether to purchase a bar of soap.

Those 3,000 citations of Baumeister and Tice re “ego depletion” bring to mind the question: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?