CFI Blog

How Ego Depletion Allows Monkey Brain to Buy Junk

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it”
–Mae West

Have you ever had that person in the office who has a bowl full of chocolate candy, and you happen to love chocolate candy? You walk by it several times a day, each time longingly looking at the chocolate, imagining the delicious taste as it melts in your mouth (not your hands). With a sigh, you summon up the willpower to yet again walk by and avoid temptation. This daily battle against temptation can lead to a phenomenon known as ego depletion, where your self-control and willpower are gradually depleted, making it harder to resist those sweet treats.

But, have you noticed that sometimes (but not too often!), you just can’t resist the temptation anymore? After the sixth or seventh time walking by that day, you tell yourself just one, but that’s it, and sneak in a handful? You relish the chocolate, and then later, when you enter in the calories into your calorie tracker, you want to go back and kick your past self for adding in those 200 calories to the day.

What happened?

You suffered from ego depletion and Monkey Brain took over!

What’s going on in your brain?

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University devised a series of experiments to determine if there was a store of willpower that got depleted over time and had to be renewed. They did things like make students eat radishes while sitting next to a bowl of chocolates and watch emotional movies while actively suppressing their emotions. Then, the students had to perform a series of puzzles after going through this mental effort to resist what they really wanted to do.

The result was that the students didn’t do as well on the puzzles as ones who weren’t forced to exert mental energy resisting their urges. Furthermore, the students were more susceptible to subsequent temptations because they’d used up their willpower.

This phenomenon of losing your willpower is called ego depletion. The more you deplete your ego, the more Monkey Brain takes over.

How can you fight ego depletion?

A study by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota shows that there are four keys to being able to exhibit self-control – the ability to resist temptations.

  • Standards. You have to define correct behavior so that you can tell whether or not you should or shouldn’t be doing something. Having no standards means you do whatever you want whenever you want, regardless of the consequences.
  • Monitoring. You have to see how you’re behaving against the standards that you set for yourself. If you fall short, then you alter your behaviors to come closer to the standard that you set for yourself. If you’ve ever asked yourself “is this the person I want to be?” then you’re performing self-monitoring.
  • Willpower. This is the active ability to say no to behavior that doesn’t line up against your standards. Using willpower actually takes energy – it even lowers the glucose in your bloodstream – and this usage of willpower is what causes ego depletion. In shorter periods of time, it’s possible to use up your willpower and let Monkey Brain take over.
  • Motivation. You have to care enough about something to be willing to change your behavior and to resist temptations in order to do so. Think about the person who says that he wants to lose weight but then goes to the buffet and loads up three plates of food. This person may have standards, monitoring, and willpower, but is more motivated by the food than by the weight loss, so doesn’t actually act. You only act on the things which are priorities in your life.

What does this have to do with personal finance?

personal finance

Whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re probably faced with financial temptations all of the time. It’s a marketer’s job to figure out ways to get you to make purchases. Many of those potential purchases are ones that you want but don’t need.

Think of a Rolex. Do you need a $10,000 watch? No. Your cell phone gives you the time. You could learn how to roughly tell time from the sun. There are clocks everywhere. Yet, through the power of marketing, many people think that they need a replica Rolex.

Why? Because, in this case, marketers appeal to Monkey Brain. They appeal to status, elegancy, luxury, pizzazz, sex appeal – all emotive claims. The Rolex will tell you time at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Who’s going to go diving in the Marianas Trench? Nobody! But, it creates another need in your mind – you need a watch that won’t break, and in the remote chance you’re deep sea diving, your Rolex will take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

If you watch television or go by malls or stores, you’re faced with temptation after temptation after temptation. Monkey Brain sees every shiny, sparkly, new thing with eyes of lust and desire. Monkey Brain wants it all, regardless of the consequences. Every time, your frontal cortex has to decide yes or no, and telling Monkey Brain no takes energy. Eventually, the energy gets zapped, and Monkey Brain wins and you come home with a bag full of junk you didn’t need. If you’ve ever wondered two hours after getting home why you bought that $150 pair of shoes or purchased that $200 shirt, you have experienced Monkey Brain winning because of ego depletion.

How do you keep Monkey Brain from depleting your ego?

The most effective way is to remove temptation from your life. If there is no temptation, then there can be no bad decisions.

However, not many of us want to move to Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan, so it’s usually impractical, if not impossible, to keep ourselves completely immunized from temptation. So, here are some things you can do to prevent Monkey Brain from reaching into your wallet when you suffer from ego depletion:

  • Automate your payments. As soon as you receive money, it should go to paying the important things first. This reduces the amount you have available for discretionary spending.
  • Keep small amounts of discretionary cash. If you don’t have much cash, then you can’t really buy that many things. Plus, spending a dollar to give in to Monkey Brain and replenish the willpower store is a lot cheaper than giving in on a big ticket item.
  • Don’t bring a credit card shopping. Monkey Brain loves nothing more than credit cards. Immediate gratification and delayed pain. It’s the cocktail that Monkey Brain can drink all day, so don’t give him the opportunity.
  • Know your priorities in life. If you don’t identify what truly is important in your life, Monkey Brain is going to say everything is important, including that Rolex.
  • Set your boundaries and have a budget. If you don’t have a monthly budget, then you don’t really have personal financial standards that you can stick to. You fail at the first step required to have self-control, because there are no standards. You can’t say if you spent more or less than you were supposed to because there’s no yardstick by which you can measure yourself (by the way, chances are pretty good that you spent more if you don’t have a budget).

The goal is to create boundaries that make it hard for Monkey Brain to take control so that you don’t have to exercise self-control as often, leaving yourself plenty of gas in the tank to avoid ego depletion.
What do you do to strengthen your willpower against Monkey Brain? Tell us in the comments below!

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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