You have probably come across the Red Hammer test where you are presented a set of mathematical problems one after another, with increasing level of difficulty. After the set of problems, you are being asked to think about the first color and tool that comes to your mind: “red” and “hammer” will come out from 98% of us. Are we really that predictable? What’s happening here?
Brief explanation to the typical response above is that firstly, red and hammer the paradigmatic options – the ideal or standards in their own categories. Secondly your conscious mind just ran out of steam in the working memory department and allowed the automated part of your mind take over. This exhaustion of the conscious mind is called ego depletion or maybe at least partly more describingly decision fatigue.
The two parts of our mind
I bet many of us reflect on our taken actions and reactions, especially when we got ourselves in some kind of a conflict with our surroundings. Be it a that edgy email that just absolutely had to be sent before leaving work or the quarrel with your partner about where to have dinner on a trip, there are plenty of typical situations we tend to fall into time and again. Personally, it just strikes me occasionally, how impulsive my reactions sometimes are – the steady foundation rock I was supposed to be, why am I so unpredictable to myself?
As briefly mentioned above already, our minds can be divided into two parts – or systems, as Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow calls them. There is the automated part of our mind, System 1, that is like the subconscious autopilot. This part of our mind is activated with the most trivial tasks, like brushing our teeth or even riding a bicycle. The System 2 on the other hand, is in charge of actions that for some reason require more focusing, conscious decisions, or logical thinking, like comparing over different insurance options or preparing a budget for the next year (-or at least it should be in charge!). Our genes, personal characteristics and experiences dictate pretty much when to use either of the two systems.
Our mind is born lazy
All in all, we like to stay on autopilot whenever possible and save working memory to the most critical and mentally demanding situations to better secure our survival. This means that we favor by default everything we are familiar with; the surroundings, the people, the food etc. The implications of this reach far and wide.
Now, I am not saying this is right and I don’t want to give excuses for intolerance, but by our nature we are less inclined to accept strangers within our society. The more prejudice you are, the more unfamiliar people will stress your conscious mind and when your ego is finally depleted, frustration and even anger will emerge. For those who have difficulties understanding this and feel a bit of “well, that’s not me” self righteous, let me ask you if you ever had that feeling during a stressful work day that you just wanted to exclude or not engage with one of your colleagues not speaking your native language in your lunch company?
The Marsmallow Test and self control
Ego depletion is obviously very closely related to self control, self discipline and further beyond our ability to do work that requires long term commitment. Now, you probably have heard about the Marshmallow Test (check our this hilarious video on kids participating this test!!) and how a simple behavioral characteristic observed in the test can determine with great probability how a person will do in school, how they will score in tests measuring intelligence and overall success later in their life. This is probably why in the realm of defining factors of personal success, conscientiousness is being considered the single most important factor of the Big 5 – the personal traits that define your success in life.
While the mechanics of self control seem to be fairly multi-faceted and complicated, in order to keep this blog within reasonable scope, let us settle just listing some things that have got to do with how some people just seem to be able to for example succeed on a diet challenge better than the most of us. These characteristics are strong internal locus of control (~ I am the master of my own fate), persistency, positively reinforcing experiences, realistic self-reflection, and the ability to set realistic goals.
Watch out for conscious biases!
With the “Red Hammer” test my immediate reaction right after amazement was that if it is so easy to predict my mind, it must be as easy to take advantage of it for example in the context of impulsive buying behavior. While buying a new shirt or a lipstick will not probably drive you into personal bankruptcy, you have to be more careful with our mental exhaustion with bigger decisions like buying a flat or a car – sometimes we tend to forget and be blind to the scale of things, you know.
I shouldn’t be probably saying this, because I admit taking advantage of ego depletion among other psychological factors buying a cars or a motorcycles and watch out for them as a seller. Conducting business like this is not about grace or fair play and especially with more significant things, I prefer not to do business with the people I know.
Good uses for your autopilot
Macolm Gladwell explains in his book Blink, how our unconscious mind can be useful in many situations, like certain level of decision making -even in some more complicated situations. Apparently there is a lot of computing that takes place behind closed doors to our conscious mind and sometimes without being able to give specific arguments, we just know things. The trick is obviously when to trust our instinct and when to it might be subjected to some sort of evolutionary biases – like consistency and commitment or liking bias.
Some time ago, when Roger Federer was still playing tennis, there were these discussions why he had started to lose games, even if by all measurable numbers he was supposed to be still on his prime. One of the speculated reasons for his less than optimal performance was that maybe he had gotten too conscious over his game. -What if I fail to throw the ball high enough and I serve an embarrassing double fault? For an athlete, competition is not the time for self reflection or self doubt, it’s ideally the time to just be let your will to win carry you unconsciously in a state of flow to do exactly the same thing you have carefully practiced over a million times.
Also, what can be a bit counter intuitive, an exhausted and clustered, foggy mind can be good for creating new ideas. In our mind there is a certain order in the world, but when we get tired, the relations between different things become weaker and there’s a possibility for innovation with new of ideas and solutions.
Finally, how to avoid or control ego depletion?
In the end ego depletion and self control is like a muscle. It get’s tired when you put enough strain on it. While it is probably possible also to build strength in avoiding ego depletion, in a sort run it is easier to focus on using your limited mental resources right. Below you can find some of my top tips:
- Get to know yourself. There are many personality tests out there to get you started on an important journey.
- Try to make the most demanding tasks when your spirit is high and you have most of your mental capacity available. Early birds use your morning for the most demanding decisions and night owls respectively the latter phases of the day.
- Learn how to breathe right and control your breath in stressful situations
- Eat right and keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day.
- Take time to recover from stress – a walk in a forest in uneven surfaces typically works well for instance. It’s been scientifically proven that even a walk in a park helps to reduce stress!
- Meditate on frequent basis -for me also running (alone, without music or other distraction) counts for meditation
- Secure good quality sleep
- Don’t get stuck pondering endlessly on all different options of a decision. Unless it’s better to procrastinate, follow your instinct to make a decision, take the first step, and don’t look back.
Do you think there is something essential missing from the list above? Minimalism maybe?