Ego Depletion

By Ben Ambridge


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Ego depletion – or as it’s sometimes called, ego fatigue – was first investigated by a social psychologist called Roy Baumeister. What he did was to get some participants who were very hungry and leave them in a waiting room with two bowls – one with cookies and the other with radishes. And they were told that they could eat some radishes, but that they couldn’t touch the cookies. Pretty cruel!

Then after 5 minutes of this, they were called in to do the experiment proper. What they had to do in this second part of the experiment was a drawing puzzle where they had to draw a particular complex shape without taking their pen off the paper.

This part of the study was also pretty cruel because the puzzles were actually impossible. What Baumeister was interested in was how long the participants persisted with the original puzzles before they gave up.

And actually, the participants who had been given only radishes to eat, and who had to resist the cookies, gave up pretty quickly. But a different group of participants – who had been allowed to eat the cookies – stuck with the impossible puzzles much longer.

Baumeister explained this pattern by saying that self-control or willpower isn’t infinite – it’s a resource, like money or petrol, that gets used up as you go along. So, the participants who had to resist the cookies used up most of their willpower doing that, and didn’t have enough left to persist with the impossible puzzles.

The participants who didn’t have to resist the cookies – who were allowed to eat them – didn’t use up any willpower, and so had plenty left over to keep trying with the puzzles.

This is quite a famous study, and you might have heard of it already, but what you might not know is that Baumeister then got quite interested in the implications of this theory for consumer behaviour, and wrote a number of articles spelling it out.

Basically, the idea is that if you get shoppers to do anything that requires too much willpower, it’s going to run out, and they’ll just either give up completely – and you’ll get an abandoned cart – or just make a snap decision and go for the cheapest option, the default option, the box that’s already ticked and so on.

So, for your site, you need to think about this from both sides. On the one hand, you need to avoid making your customers do anything that depletes their willpower. Giving them too many options to choose from, too many pages to click through, too many boxes to fill in on the checkout form – all of these use up willpower and are mentally exhausting.

But coming at this from the other angle, you need to make sure that if their willpower does run out, and they just go for the cheapest or default option, that this is one that is still good for you. In other words, your default option might be for a relatively high-specification high-cost product which customers can remove extras from, rather than a basic one that they then add options to.

But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of assuming that customers’ willpower is infinite. It’s not, and it actually gets used up very quickly. So, make sure you make everything absolutely 100% as easy as possible.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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