Denise de Ridder, Utrecht University (March 29th, 2016)
At a preconference on self-control research prior to the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Diego in January 2016 self-control guru Roy Baumeister was challenged by outsider Greg Walton from Stanford in a debate on self-control. The idea of a debate on pressing issues in self-control research is timely and organizers Marina Milyavskaya and Elliot Berkman should be applauded for their initiative as there is so much controversy about the nature of self-control these days. An exchange of opposing views could help to provide a bit more clarity. However, the focus of the debate was somewhat indefinite. Walton – who has co-published with Veronika Job from Zürich University on self-control beliefs – started with explaining the relevance of naïve lay conceptions about self-control for understanding when and how individuals are capable of self-control but was missing the point in presenting self-control beliefs as an alternative for current self-control theories. As Baumeister explained, research on self-control beliefs is a valuable addition to the literature but not at all at odds with mainstream research on self-control. If there is controversy in self-control research, it is about the nature and the existence of the ego-depletion phenomenon. Whereas Baumeister and other scholars claim that self-control relies on a scarce resource, other researchers posit that self-control depends on attentional and motivational processes that may guide the decision to exert effort in prioritizing long-term goals rather than indulge in immediate gratification. A debate on self-control in view of these competing models about ego-depletion would have been very useful to learn more about whether the two approaches are really incompatible or share more similarities than both parties would like to admit. Maybe the whole debate on the exact nature of ego-depletion and its underlying mechanisms will be overruled by new evidence on whether ego-depletion exists at all. During the convention Martin Hagger presented the results of a replication study on ego-depletion on behalf of a large number of researchers who ran the same study in psychology labs all over the world. In view of the remarkable findings that featured considerable absence of evidence in favor of the depletion phenomenon, Hagger’s presentation was largely ignored as it was attended by only a handful of researchers (mostly from European origine). Much more research is needed to determine whether or not ego-depletion exists and under which conditions it can be observed. For now, we can safely conclude that self-control research is in dire need of alternatives to the way ego-depletion is assessed to make significant steps forward in understanding how self-control operates. As psychologists, we should invest in developing ecologically valid paradigms that allow for studying ego-depletion outside the lab, and that take account of the real self-control dilemmas people experience when they are confronted with a choice between long-terms goals they care for and immediate gratifications they long for. Let’s hope for more debate on self-control whenever there is an opportunity to exchange views on one of the most important human qualities.