Depleted cognitive self-control: impact on ethical decisions

I have previously written about how self-control can be depleted, leading to impulsive actions that prioritise short-term, less-than-ideal gains. Some research suggested that this might be because people fail to put together a plan of action that would prevent the lapse of self-control occurring, and that self-control might be re-established if, when in a tempting situation involving a choice between two conflicting options, we take the time to think about our long-term goals and the specific details of how we want to achieve them.

A lapse of self-control can have undesirable consequences for the individual. Persistently valuing enjoyable but unhealthy foods rather than prioritising longer term dietary goals could result in all sorts of negative health outcomes; persistently valuing the thrill of an impulse purchase over a more considered, thoughtful approach to buying items can result in a lot of money wasted and a whole lot of space taken up by things you don’t want or need. But what about further consequences to impaired self-control? When your self-control is depleted, what sort of wider impact might that have?

When it comes to self-control and ethics, it looks like there might be a problem. Gino and colleagues (including Dan Ariely – a research psychologist and behavioural economist whose pop science books on decision-making you might have come across before) conducted a series of experiments to find out what effects depleted self-control would have on moral awareness and behaviour (“Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour” in the journal Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that depleted self-control had consequences for behaviour and choices in a range of ethical situations – short-term, unethical choices with a quick pay-off were prioritised over longer-term, more ideal goals. You can imagine the potential magnitude of the consequences of that in the real world.

In one experiment, Gino and colleagues examined whether self-control depletion led research participants to cheat on a problem-solving task (they could cheat by overstating their performance, which would get them more money at the end of the task, so there was a financial incentive to cheat). Self-control was depleted by showing one group of participants a soundless video of a woman being interviewed, with irrelevant words appearing as subtitles at the bottom of the screen – these participants were instructed to focus on the woman’s face and ignore the words, which requires plenty of self-control (you can do the Stroop test to see just how difficult it can be to ignore written words and how much control you need to exert to ignore them). Another group, the control group, was shown the same video but weren’t given any instructions – they could look wherever they wanted on the screen. The results? 34% of participants in the self-control depletion group cheated by overstating their performance, whereas only 13.7% of participants in the control group cheated – a significant difference.

Subsequent experiments revealed that self-control depletion actually made participants less aware of ethical situations and ethics-related concepts – once self-control was worn down, the topic of ethics was kind of de-prioritised and placed at the back of the mind.

Still, in that initial experiment, only 34% of people cheated after being depleted in self-control. What could be an influencing factor in who does or doesn’t cheat when given the opportunity? A person’s individual sense of morality and ethics probably plays a role, and the researchers investigated this by using a questionnaire to assess how central a sense of ethics/morality was to each participant – how strongly their self-identity hinged on this sense of being a moral and ethical person.

Again, the findings are perhaps unsurprising. Individuals with a strong moral identity (ones who considered it important for themselves to feel that they were caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind) didn’t cheat that much more when their self-control was depleted compared to when their self-control wasn’t depleted. People with low moral identity cheated much more after depletion relative to when they weren’t depleted.

It’s interesting to consider how this might apply to other ethical situations we might encounter in daily life. When, as consumers, we have the option to purchase something of ethically dubious provenance (for example, clothing from high street retailers who are known to have a poor track record in terms of ethical production lines or sustainable use of environmental resources), are we more likely to choose the less ethical option if our self-control has been worn down? The experiments conducted by Gino et al. demonstrated that self-control can be worn down in different, seemingly irrelevant ways (such as having to ignore the presentation of words, or having to write an essay that doesn’t contain certain letters of the alphabet) and still have an impact on ethical choices. So after a long day at work and exerting self-control in order to stay focused and productive, we’re all probably pretty cognitively depleted, and that might mean impaired ethical awareness and increased favour towards unethical options that offer swift pay-off. Gino and colleagues also demonstrated, in a final experiment, that resisting the temptation to cheat depletes self-control as well – so trying to prioritise an ethical choice might wear you down to the point where you make an unethical one. And this is complicated by the influential factor of identity – all these things may only be an issue for you in proportion to how important a particular ethical position or issue is to you and your identity.

It’s difficult to predict how generalisable the results of the Gino et al. study are to other ethical situations – cheating for monetary gain is one quite specific scenario, but there are plenty of other contexts and quandaries of an ethical or moral nature, and the stakes might be sufficiently different to change the effects of self-control depletion on moral/ethical choices (consider how complicated it might be to examine the effects of self-control depletion in a situation with ambiguous moral outcomes, such as the classic moral dilemma, the trolley problem). The main implication of this study’s findings, however, is that depleted self-control does seem to lead to prioritising short-term, unethical options that have quicker pay-off (such as receiving more money at the end of the experiment) over long-term, ethical options with less clearly defined pay-off (such as maintaining an ethical and fair approach in life and whatever satisfaction and benefits might be derived from that). Additionally considering the self-control depletion research I previously discussed, which found that lapses of self-control seem to be due to poor planning of responses to resolve the conflict between choices, a few recommendations might be made:

(1) Avoid having to make choices with an ethical component following an activity that might have depleted your self-control, e.g. if you aim to be an ethical consumer, try not to go shopping after a long day at work when you are likely to be cognitively depleted.

(2) If having to make that choice when you’re depleted is unavoidable (e.g. you have to purchase a birthday present for a friend, and the friend’s birthday is tomorrow, and you really want to give your friend the present tomorrow, meaning you have to buy something tonight directly after work, even though it has been a really tough day and you are probably very much cognitively depleted!), have a mental action plan of how you would achieve your long-term goal of being a more ethical consumer and consider those details when you are tempted to purchase an item that doesn’t fit well with your more ideal goals.

(3) Purposefully direct your attention to alternatives as part of your mental action plan. If you dwell too much on the less ideal item you’re thinking about purchasing, the effort to resist purchasing it could be enough to wear down your self-control until you cave in and buy that not-so-brilliant option anyway.

2 Thoughts on “Depleted cognitive self-control: impact on ethical decisions

  1. So, in practice this means it is better to specify a shopping day, instead of doing the shopping in whenever there is time? It feels a bit funny to treat shopping seriously (almost like a sport or music skill: giving it enough time, forming a plan, mentally practicing it before the actual event etc.) to become a more conscious and ethical shopper – but perhaps even shopping needs “mindfulness” to be satisfying and effective.

    • I don’t think it needs to involve quite so much time as would usually be dedicated to sport or music – perhaps it just needs a bit more planning that is usually allotted to it. But if someone wants to be a thoughtful consumer, then presumably they’d be happy to treat the issue seriously and maybe spend a few minutes planning their shopping for the week or planning ways of keeping themselves focused on their longer-term goals. It doesn’t necessarily mean “I will only shop directly after a long rest so I’m not cognitively depleted” – it would be more like “Ok I won’t go and browse some clothes shops while I wait for my bus after work because I know my self-control might be depleted” or if you are in a situation where you’re tempted to prioritise shorter-term, less ideal goals, you’re just aware of the mental strategy of thinking about the steps you’d take to achieve your longer-term, more ideal goal instead.

      I’ve actually also got a paper on the effectiveness of mindfulness on self-control – unsurprisingly, mindfulness exercises are a good way of building up self-control again once it has been depleted. The research certainly suggests that a mindful approach to life has beneficial outcomes in a lot of contexts.

Leave a Reply to Jess Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation