The fall of ego depletion?

Is there another crisis in psychology? If you have not heard it, a huge replication attempt on ego depletion has recently been conducted. This hypothetical state of reduced self-control has received immense empirical attention in the past decades. I have written about this replication study before and yes, we participated too. The results have just been put online and will soon be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. In short: No convincing evidence for ego depletion was found. Nothing. Nada.

What now? The original ego depletion researchers, Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, wrote a commentary on the failed replication. Their comment in a nutshell: 1) the replication studies did not measure ego depletion, 2) there is an abundance of previous studies showing that ego depletion exists which cannot be “dismissed”. What to make of this commentary?

First of all, it is relevant to understand how such a replication study works. Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis were the ones who proposed to conduct such a replication study. They contacted Baumeister and Vohs to agree on the task that should be used for a replication attempt. Baumeister and Vohs now stated that it was a mistake that they said “yes” to the task used. They say that although previous work has shown that this task leads to ego depletion, the task has not been frequently used in the literature and actually does not tap into ego depletion. I find this argument not really persuasive.

Why? Well, a recent meta-analysis by Evan Carter and colleagues showed that even when looking at other and more ways to induce ego depletion, still no convincing evidence exists for the effect. Ok, Baumeister and Vohs were brave enough to say that they made a mistake, but I wonder what would have happened when the replication attempt would have generated evidence for the ego depletion effect. Would they then also say the task did not measure ego depletion? I do not think so. The commentary showed that they believe so strong in ego depletion that they even argued that one just cannot dismiss all the positive findings on ego depletion.

In my view, their belief comes close to belief perseverance and confirmation bias in which negative evidence is discounted and only confirming evidence is searched for. I say this because in Carter’s meta-analysis, the point was made that the ego depletion literature suffers from publication bias. Although Carter and colleagues stated that this publication bias might perhaps not have hugely affected their meta-analytic finding, the bias exists. From my own experience, I concur. In our labs, my colleagues and I have had the same experience in which on many occasions, ‘standard’ procedures to elicit ego depletion did not evoke any reduced self-control. I guess many other labs have had the same experience.

What to do now? Baumeister and Vohs proposed to organize a preregistered multisite replication using many well-tested procedures. I applaud this initiative. By the way: there is already a preregistered study on ego depletion using a well tested procedure that has recently been published. Do you know what they found? Nothing. Nada.



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