October 25, 2011
Willpower Depletes More In Younger Folks?

Self-regulation depletion or ego-depletion is the scientific study of willpower and how using willpower for one purpose can drain one's ability to exercise willpower for other reasons. An excellent recent book, Willpower, by Ray Baumeister and John Tierney surveys the research in the field. Well, a new report in Plos One took a look at ego-depletion as a function of age and found willpower seems to deplete much less as people get older.

Self-regulation depletion (SRD), or ego-depletion, refers to decrements in self-regulation performance immediately following a different self-regulation-demanding activity. There are now over a hundred studies reporting SRD across a broad range of tasks and conditions. However, most studies have used young student samples. Because prefrontal brain regions thought to subserve self-regulation do not fully mature until 25 years of age, it is possible that SRD effects are confined to younger populations and are attenuated or disappear in older samples. We investigated this using the Stroop color task as an SRD induction and an autobiographical memory task as the outcome measure. We found that younger participants (<25 years) were susceptible to depletion effects, but found no support for such effects in an older group (4065 years). This suggests that the widely-reported phenomenon of SRD has important developmental boundary conditions casting doubt on claims that it represents a general feature of human cognition.

They used an Autobiographical Memory Task as part of their test. Do older people have an easier time on that test just due to having more episodic memories from life? In the report they say that in control groups the young do better than the old at this task. But I'm not sure that result is a sufficient control. This needs to be repeated using a number of other methods used to measure depletion of willpower. e.g. some experiments measure willingness to keep hands immersed in cold water and others fatigue the subjects with lots of decisions to make. This is an intriguing result. But I still expect decision fatigue to show up in the middle aged.

Their point about the prefrontal region not maturing until about age 25 is important. The brain continues to develop into early adulthood. Humans gain more self control in their 20s and this is probably at least part of the cause of declining risk of car accidents in the 20s. Perhaps there are different forms of willpower that involve different parts of the brain. Resisting immediate gratification might involve different brain circuits than the ability to continue to subject oneself to mild pain such as cold water.

See my previous posts Brain Willpower Depleted By Use, Doing Tasks Depletes Willpower, Decision Fatigue And Conservation Of Willpower, and Good Or Evil Ups Willpower.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 October 25 08:40 PM  Brain Performance

PacRim Jim said at October 26, 2011 1:57 PM:

I thought will power is what old people used to keep the young in line.
As in, "Stop that right now or your outtadawill!"

Steven Manseau said at October 28, 2011 11:21 AM:

A great example is the student loan issue. My wife used Direct Loans to fund her college education. They would routinely send her checks in amounts that were multiples of what she requested. Knowing the interest rate was 7%+ she never kept a dime more than she needed and sent the excess funds right back to Direct Loans, where they summarily "lose" the check. Being an excellent bookkeeper, she always could find the cancelled check, and after constant phone calls letters and personal visits eventually she straightened things out (three years after graduation) Direct Loans would also misapply payments, by either applying to the wrong loan (the one that wasn't due yet) or not applying payment at all even though the checks were getting cashed. Parents who are paying the bills can be misinformed as to what loan is due and whether the funds were in excess over the actual tuition costs. It takes a lot of bookkeeping and effort to keep from getting screwed by these folks, they make what should be a very straight forward process as convoluted as possible. The usual nightmare phone-tree helpline, and then they play dumb until you throw the canceled checks in their face and viola! Then they see the payment too! Very nasty scam going on here, and the schools are in bed with them, it's a shameful, what's going on, and nobody is talking about it. All these kids know is they are up to their ears in debt, and most of it is their fault for taking money they really didn't need, and not keeping good books. Please investigate.

M. Report said at October 28, 2011 1:06 PM:

Recent scientific studies have proven what folk wisdom knew all along:

1) Human beings do not reach their full adult mental potential until age 25;
There was a time when driving an automobile, voting, and getting married
were recognized to be steps along that path not permitted to the unready.

2) Exercising will power or self-control is a mental activity with a
physical basis in brain activity; It is a form of work, just as surely,
but more subtly than, say, tap dancing. In both cases one has to learn
how to do the task, performance induces fatigue, and an inexperienced
amateur will waste most of their energy tripping over their own feet.

3) Bonus wisdom: Pregnant women, under the influence of a storm of hormones,
grow a 'mommy brain' which changes their personality, including reducing
their ability to say 'No!' to what their children want; After menopause,
they mostly return to sanity, and are better at handling their grandchildren.

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