The theory of ego depletion suggests that there is a state of depletion of psychic energy so important that it can impair our ability to self-regulate, at least temporarily.

Among other things, this theory has made it possible to answer questions such as: why is it more difficult to perform a task after being exposed to mental burnout or conflict? what are the events that generate ego burnout? do efforts to contain behaviors generate a decrease in our self-regulation?

Through numerous studies, the exhaustion model has allowed us to analyze the elements involved in our ability to make decisions and execute tasks that involve mental effort. In this article we will see what this consists of and through which studies it has been explained, as well as some manifestations of this psychological phenomenon in daily life.

The theory of ego exhaustion: is self-regulation limited?

One of the topics most studied by psychology has been self-regulation, considered as the ability of the “I” to alter its own behavior. This capacity is very useful in adaptive terms, since allows us to adjust our actions to the demands of the environment .

In this sense, self-regulation involves a set of decisions we make to contain an impulse or a behaviour. That is, there is an important component of “will”, which in turn depends on the ability of the “I” to exercise it.

From the earliest psychoanalytic theories, the “I” (the “ego”) has been described as a part of the psyche that must constantly deal with external reality, mediating between internal conflicts or desires and external pressures. But this is not achieved out of thin air. To achieve it, the ego has to make use of an important level of psychic energy .

In more recent times, theories such as ego exhaustion confirm that there is a type of energy or psychic force involved in volitional acts. This being so, psychic energy is an indispensable resource for us to achieve self-regulation. But do we have unlimited reserves of such energy? If not, what about our will?

The theory of exhaustion suggests precisely that, depending on the energy available to us, we may or may not initiate voluntary behaviour (we will quickly give up on tasks due to lack of energy resources). In other words, self-regulation can be modified if there has been a previous exhaustion of psychic energy.

Baumeister and other representative studies

Psychologist Roy Baumeister, a pioneer in this theory, defines “ego depletion” (ego depletion, originally) as a state in which the “I” does not have all the resources it normally has. Therefore, some of the executive functions it performs (such as self-regulation, decision-making, and behavioral activation) depend on how much of those resources have been consumed or are available.

This researcher proposes that an important part of the “I” possesses limited resources , which are used for all acts involving self-will. That is to say that, being limited, the resources are not enough for all the acts, at least not if they are presented in a consecutive way.

Thus, as a psychological phenomenon, the exhaustion of the ego makes the “I” temporarily less capable and less willing to function optimally, deteriorating the subsequent tasks. In other words, after making an important mental effort, the “I” is exhausted, generating a state of fatigue or relaxation in which it worsens the person’s capacity to self-regulate.

In fact, some studies have seen that the efforts we make to adapt to stressful situations involve such a high “psychic cost” that damages or deteriorates subsequent activity (even if it is activities that are not related to the stressful situation).

For example, the mental efforts made to contain behaviors that give us pleasure; such as when we try hard to follow a diet, and at the first opportunity to enjoy a pleasant food our self-regulation drops considerably (we eat too much).

Another example is a study where it was shown that when a person tries not to think about a white bear, this self-regulation exercise generates so much ego exhaustion that people give up faster when performing a subsequent task (even though it apparently has nothing to do with the white bear, like an anagram test).

Likewise, other research on ego-exhaustion theory suggests that important mental efforts, such as cognitive dissonance and emotional repression, generate ego-exhaustion and impact on subsequent decision-making. In the same vein, some studies have suggested that the greater the ego depletion, the lesser the feeling of guilt and/or empathy. And with this, less probability of exercising prosocial behavior.

How to recover ego energy?

As we have seen, the exhaustion of the ego is a phenomenon present in many of our daily activities. But this theory has not only allowed us to analyze the repercussions of psychic energy drain on our decisions, abilities and behavior.

The theory of ego exhaustion has also allowed us to analyze the importance of basic issues to compensate for fatigue, such as rest. Braumeister himself, along with his collaborators, have suggested that there are compensatory and restorative measures of psychic strength: sleep and positive emotional experiences, mainly.

In the same sense, other researchers have studied the compensation of ego exhaustion through pleasant and rewarding physiological experiences . For example, by trying foods or drinks with high glucose content.


In the same sense, a significant activation of the heart frequency has been observed in the face of high effort to exercise self-control (effort that is greater at a higher level of exhaustion), which means that the psychic effort has direct repercussions on our body.

Bibliographic references:

  • Baumeister, R. and Vohs, K. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion and Motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1): 115-128.
  • Baumeister, R. (2002). Ego Depletion and Self-Control Failure: An Energy Model of the Self’s Executive Function. Self and Identity, 1(2): 129-136.
  • Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M. and Tice, D. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? 74(5): 1252-1265.
  • Bejarano, T. (2010). Self-regulation and freedom. Thémata. Magazine of Philosophy. 43: 65-86.
  • Hagger, M.S. and Chatzisarantis, N.L. (2013). The Sweet Taste of Success The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39: 28-42.
  • Xu, H., Bègue, L. and Bushman, B. J. (2012). Too fatigued to care: Ego depletion, guilt, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43 (5): 379-384.