Wednesday, November 30, 2011


UPDATE: And of course the second thing I see on the Internet this morning is this interview with Professor Ego Depletion himself.   (The first thing was this rabbit.)

Wow, this has been a really pathetic month for blogging.  We stand at 3 weeks short of the end of the semester.  In addition to normal week-to-week stuff (today my officemate and I pulled our hair at the prospect of reading, as one of five papers for Monday's class, a 73-page paper about how people react to frequency versus percentage information), and a monster data analysis I started today, I have two 20-page papers (research proposals) and a research proposal presentation to put together in my spare time.  It's kind of scary.

You can see why I don't have a lot of time for blogging, and that the time I do have I don't want to spend writing about school when I could be reading REAMDE.

So instead, let us briefly (not 73 pages worth) consider a favorite EQ topic - ego depletion.

This past Saturday, I read the book Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban.  Like me (and many others), he does not believe that the performance deficits observed in the second task that follows the initial "depleting" task result from the actual depletion of a resource (though, interestingly, we have different intuitions and a somewhat different evidence base for that belief).  In his discussion of the ego depletion model, he makes the following (meticulously referenced) observations about the idea that glucose in the brain is the limiting factor for effortful self-control based on studies that show different performance from people who drink a glass of sugary lemonade versus a glass of Splenda-sweetened lemonade

"Consider that the entire brain uses about .25 calories per minute.  If we suppose that the "self-control" task increases overall brain metabolism by 10%--a very large estimate--then the brains of subjects who do one of these tasks for five minutes, who are categorized as "depleted," have consumed an extra 0.125 calories.  Does it seem right that you need 100 calories from lemonade to compensate for a tenth of a Tic Tac?" (p. 175).

I thought the glucose idea made a lot of intuitive sense but ... yeah.  When you start looking at actual research into brain physiology, not so much.  I think the resource metaphor is so immediately plausible and appealing that it's almost "too good to check," even to a lot of psychologists.

I am pretty much convinced by the current evidence base that "depletion" is about motivation, not any actual lack of ability (at least in the typical ego depletion lab experiment - perhaps in some very extreme cases a person could truly not continue a task, though whether that is willpower "depletion" or some other kind of physical or mental fatigue would be hard to distinguish).

It's a strange case: it's a terrifically interesting phenomenon that has been studied a lot, and applied in a lot of different domains of psychology, and yet we don't really know what it is.  I guess that means there's lots of work left to be done to understand what's really going on.  Stay tuned.

Anyway, next time you're feeling depleted, don't reach for a sugary snack - my best guess is that most any "reward" should do the trick.  May I suggest looking at a fuzzy bunny with a Groucho-esque moustache?

My friend in the next cage is so depleted he's flopped.  Boring.  Are you interesting?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Collecting Questions

OK, people, share with me -- What are some phenomena that you think are puzzling from an evolutionary perspective?  Perhaps the classic examples of this are "Why do people commit suicide?" and "Why do some people have same-sex sexual orientations?"  I will be presenting some of these enigmas to my evolutionary psychology seminar.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rabbit-Style Psychological Science

From Greenwald et al. (1986):

"Fragile and misdirected though they are, theories are the essential containers of scientific knowledge and the necessary vehicles of scientific progress.  As suggested by the metaphors of containers and vehicles, criteria such as storage capacity and speed of progress--criteria that are appraisable without having to speak of proof and disproof, or of truth and falsity--are most appropriate for evaluating theories.  The work of science may best be regarded as approving and disapproving of theories, rather than as proving and disproving them" (p. 226; emphasis in the original).

So what do you think, bunnies?

Do you approve?
Or disapprove?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Beloved Universe

Thursday I went to the city library web site to request a book my mom recommended, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, the first Sherlock Holmes novel to be endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate and apparently a most worthy successor -- a "no-shit Sherlock."

And as it happens, this week is Alice in Wonderland week at the library, timed to coincide with the staging of an Alice ballet in town next weekend.  So this afternoon, Robert and I walked over to hear a quite nice lecture on the theme of Alice's transformations (both within the text and across different takes of the story) by an English professor at the university (and to see a clip from a 1933 live action version of the story I'd never seen before and that, as the professor pointed out with amusement, showed us a surprisingly early example of people in photographs talking to us, a phenomenon that we of course associate with Harry Potter). I'm really glad that I didn't miss this.

Sherlock Holmes' London and Alice's Wonderland are two universes that I love to spend time in, and despite being huge fans of the original texts, I also enjoy seeing other spins on these worlds.  What fictional universes do you love?  Do you consider yourself relatively tolerant of different versions or do you take a more purist perspective on them?