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Ego depletion sample essay

The present research on ego depletion suggest that ego depletion is central to the problem of coping with stress and trauma. The notion that coping has something to do with resources is quite familiar. For instance, automatic responses, by definition, do not require the self to engage in active, volitional responding, and so automatic responses do not consume this precious resource of the self and hence do not cause ego depletion. In contrast, the self is the controller of controlled responses and expends its resources in such responses.

Because this resource is quite limited, the self must conserve it by doing as many things as possible with automatic responses. Consequently, very important aspect of the self, namely its executive function, operates on the basis of a limited resource that is depleted when the person makes choices, exerts self-control, or performs any other act of volition. This scarce and precious psychological resource is often strained to its maximum capacity when the person encounters stress or trauma. One of the first to propose it was Selye (1976).

He described a “general adaptation syndrome” in which the body’s adaptation to noxious agents takes its toll. The aftereffects of such adaptation can involve increased vulnerability and exhaustion, “as though something were lost, or used up, during the work of adaptation” (Selye, 1976, p. 82). More recent work has frequently invoked the notion that coping consumes resources. Antonovsky (1979) proposed that there are generalized resources that help people (some more than others) to resist the adverse effects of stress.

Wheaton (1983) distinguished between personal and environmental resources. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) explained that resources precede and influence coping, and changes in these resources mediate the effects of stress. Hammer and Marting (1985) listed five different types or domains of coping resources. Hobfall (1989) articulated the central motivational importance of conserving resources, in that the potential or actual loss of valued resources is central to what people find stressful or threatening.

The similarity in these allusions to resources in coping may be more apparent than real, because various researchers have had quite different things in mind when they discuss such resources: spiritual faith, a social network, money, personal energy, an emotional sense of security. It is clear that coping can make demands on this resource, and in fact there are several different ways that this can happen. An important distinction is often made between active and passive coping, although the terms are somewhat misleading. Active coping refers to altering the objective outcomes.

Passive coping refers to subjective adaptation when one cannot alter the outcome itself (Bongard, 1995). Thus, if one’s bedroom window is broken one wintry night, active coping might entail replacing the glass, whereas passive coping could involve putting on one’s winter coat and huddling under the covers all night, or learning to tolerate sleeping in a cold room. Although passive coping may be passive with respect to the stressor, it often requires active exertion of control over oneself, and so it may draw on the person’s volitional resources just as much as active coping.

In fact, it may sometimes require more total exertion, insofar as the problem may persist. To pursue the window example, the active coping of repairing the window resolves the problem, whereas the passive coping of huddling under the covers dictates facing the same problem the next night (because the window is still broken). A comparable distinction was made in an influential work by Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder (1982) with regard to primary and secondary control.

Although these terms also may be misleading, primary control refers to altering the environment or situation to suit the self, whereas secondary control involves altering the self to suit the situation. Both of these approaches to coping require the expenditure of the self’s volitional resource, and, as such, both may be draining. Hence, although either coping approach may be an effective way of responding to a problem, in both instances the person may require some time to replenish the depleted resource. Some situations clearly are more stressful and demanding than others.

A work by Brady (1958) showed that pairs of monkeys differed in stress-related outcomes such as ulcers, even though both endured the same threat (of electric shock) and the same total punishment (because shock was yoked). The monkey who had responsibility for repeatedly pressing the button in order to prevent the shock was far more likely to die of ulcers than the monkey without such responsibility. In following up this work, Weiss (1991) identified several key variables that increase the stressfulness of the situation.

These included a situational demand for many responses, even if each response was relatively easy (such as pressing a button). Thus, simply having to perform a great many active behaviors can be harmful. Second, uncertainty contributed to stress: animals who received no success feedback and thus had to cope with seemingly constant threat suffered far more than those whose punishment contingencies were identical but who received clearer feedback about the success of their efforts.

Third, having to choose the lesser of two evils constituted a highly stressful choice, as compared to situations in which one option would yield a wholly positive outcome. This third finding was obtained by making the feedback itself unpleasant, in the form of loud, aversive noise, so that the animal’s choice was between receiving the shock or receiving the loud noise upon successfully preventing the shock.

Extrapolating from these animal studies to human beings, one may suggest that people experience considerable stress when many responses under uncertain, ambiguous conditions are required in order to deal with threat, or when there is no clearly positive, desirable option available. Such situations may be regarded as the operational definition of hard choices, and such choices are presumably especially draining of the individual’s psychological, volitional resource. Thus, even when the threat can be objectively defeated, active coping responses may take a severe toll on the individual.

Meanwhile, situations that permit no objective or primary control can also be quite hard on the person. Seligman (1985) work on learned helplessness indicated the debilitating effects of exposure to aversive, threatening situations, where there is no option for altering the outcome to suit the sell. Glass and Singer ( 1992) showed that working under conditions of uncontrollable, unpredictable stress (aversive noise) takes a toll on individuals and thereafter leaves them in a vulnerable state.

Cohen (2000) verified that unpredictable and uncontrollable stresses are highly threatening, make greater demands on the person, and produce aftereffects that are not attributable to mood or arousal. Compas (1997) showed that children who assess a situation as concrete and unchangeable show a variety of deficits, including discouragement, diminished effort, and deteriorating performance. These effects of responding to an uncontrollable, aversive situation occur in substantial part because the person exerts control over the self.

An impulse to respond to failure or injustice by fighting for success must be stifled if the cause is hopeless. Negative emotions such as frustration, anger, and depression must be overcome, and so the demands for affect regulation can be severe. Thoughts must also be controlled, such as when one stops oneself from ruminating about the aversive situation and one’s thwarted efforts (Snyder, 1994). One may also alter further performance attempts, such as setting more appropriate goals or withholding effort so as to prevent further disappointments.

Thus, coping requires regulating or controlling the self (Taylor and Pham, 1996). All of these responses involve self-regulatory operations on the self, and so they may drain the volitional resource just as much as do those active responses aimed at rectifying the situation or warding off threat. Indeed, these self-regulatory responses may eventually be all the more draining, because they do not objectively solve the problem but leave the person having to perform these accommodations repeatedly.

For example, the difficulty of adapting oneself to a new physical handicap such as accidentrelated paralysis may derive in part because the person must accommodate the self in multiple, ongoing ways to the new limitations and must repeatedly adjust the self, both pragmatically and emotionally, to them (Snyder, 1998). Sherrod, Hage, Halpern, and Moore (1997) showed that the aftereffects of noise stress had a linear relation to the degree of control the person had had over the noise, such that the greatest decrements were found among people who had suffered through the most uncontrollable noise.

Thus, putting up with uncontrollable, aversive situations can be more draining than having primary, direct control over them. The notion that coping with stress depletes some psychological resource is particularly relevant to any evidence that people show deficits after, as opposed to merely during, the exposure to stress. There is considerable evidence that people show deficits in the aftermath of coping with stress (Cohen, 2000).

A seminal study by Glass, Singer, and Friedman (1989), for example, exposed people to uncontrollable, unpredictable noise and then measured subsequent frustration tolerance (persistence on unsolvable problems) and proofreading performance in a quiet, stress-free environment. People who had been exposed to the uncontrollable, unpredictable noise performed worse on those subsequent tasks than did the people who had been exposed to the same amount of noise but in a predictable and hence less stressful manner. Similar effects have been found following a learned helplessness treatment (Cohen, 1996).

Ego depletion consumes the resources that the self uses for volition, including self-control, controlled processes, active response, initiative, and decisionmaking. If coping with stress consumes that same resource, then decrements in those spheres should be expected. Indeed, evidence supports these latter speculations. The debilitation of self-control following stress, for example, has been well established for addictive and impulsive behaviors. Thus, in a smoking cessation clinic, Wewers (1988) found that higher levels of life stress following the completion of the program were correlated with higher relapse rates.

Cohen and Lichtenstein (1990) reported that selfreports of high stress led to higher relapse rates among people who had successfully quit smoking. Hull, Young, and Jouriles (1986) showed comparable results in alcoholism relapse following successful detoxification, although the link between high life stress and relapse was confined to people who were high in dispositional self-awareness (presumably because people who blame their troubles on others do not return to alcohol to escape aversive self-awareness).

Hodgins, el Guebaly, and Armstrong (1995) likewise found high stress predicted relapse among alcoholics. Marlatt and Gordon (1995) drew the same conclusion about heroin addiction. Additional evidence of ego depletion can be found in studies of stress and burnout. Recovery from stress therefore also may carry an element of recovering from one’s own coping–that is, recovering from the depleting effects of one’s coping efforts, including dealing with the pragmatic problems presented by the stress and managing one’s own feelings and thoughts during the difficult period.

Altogether, then, there is an assortment of evidence fitting the view that coping with stress produces deficits in the self’s executive function. Because some of the findings are subject to multiple interpretations, undoubtedly, further work is needed. Nonetheless, it appears that one plausible consequence of stress is the depletion of the resources that the self uses for self-control, responsible choice, and other volition.

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