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mental health mondays :: guess again

you will refrain from eating cookies- for science!
over the last few weeks, while i was busy writing up posts on the issues surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder, something scary happened in the world of psychology. if you follow developments in the field, chances are that you've heard about this already, but if not, let me clue you in: it turns out that one of the foundational studies in behavioural science may well be complete hooey.

the theory, which has been taken as gospel for so long that it forms the basis of later psychological work, stems from an experiment done by two scientists on a group of university students two decades ago [which isn't really that long ago at all, but when you consider the advances made in psychology during that time, it might as well have been in the stone age]. the experiment falls into the "kinda of douche-y but not dangerous" category, so we're not talking about mk-ultra here. you can read about it in the excellent article linked above, or you can read my paltry summation of its findings:

exerting willpower [e.g., forcing oneself to eat radishes rather than freshly baked cookies when presented with both] exhausts one's "supply" of willpower in the same way that exercising a muscle exhausts that muscle.

it's a study that's been cited by thousands of other papers and used as the basis of dozens of other experiments, but a recent analysis suggests that the results of the original study are difficult to reproduce. and by difficult, i mean, they can be reproduced about half the time. another way of putting that would be to say that the experiment has an equal chance of working or not working when it comes to supporting the hypothesis.

there is, of course, a lot more work and research to be done, because the importance of this idea is such that you can't just toss it out at the first major roadblock, but if the theory of "ego depletion" does turn out to be untenable, it may hold a valuable lesson about the dangers of expectations.

the "ego depletion" hypothesis is [or was] appealing, because it seems to confirm long-held western beliefs: our culture, shaped largely by the teachings of the christian church, explicitly validates the idea that character is strengthened through privation, whether it's from cookies, sex, or wealth. we now understand that those teachings were intended largely to keep the great part of the population from resenting those who were wealthy and licentious. "sure, it looks like we're having fun, but you can feel smug because you know you'll be rewarded once you're dead."

even as the importance of religious teaching fades from importance in the lives of most westerners, its tenets are still dug deep in our collective psyche. we may not believe that having numerous sexual partners is sinful, for instance, but there is still a huge segment of the population that, to some extent, views themselves as being "better" for resisting their urges. why better? you can make arguments about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, but protection can be used with one partner or a hundred. ultimately, it comes down to our cultural programming: we are stronger, better people when we show that we can deprive ourselves of something innocuous that we want.

we are also taught that the more or longer we are tempted towards sin or cookies, the weaker our resolve becomes and the stronger we must be to withstand it. our culture quite literally programs us, reinforcing the message that as our will is tested, it becomes more and more likely to break under the strain. everything we know, everything that our culture teaches us, would lead us to believe that the results of the willpower study were believable.

to that end, it seems like the great cookie experiment was fated to reach the conclusions it did, because both the scientists and the participants had the same built-in biases i've just described. for the experiment to be a true barometer of human behaviour, eliminating social programming, there would have to be a way of blinding the study so that those biases were blocked from interfering. easy for me to say.

the ultimate fate of the ego depletion thesis rests with those far better educated than i, and we're all better for it. but i would like to put it out there that whenever a "big idea" in psychology or behavioural science [i've used these terms interchangeably in this post, even though they are two different things, so shame on me] confirms our gut feelings, we should immediately look at how our biases were or were not eliminated from the testing process. 

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