My hypothesis on willpower, self-control, and Ego Depletion

Disclaimer: Everything in this article is my own thoughts, and my own thoughts only. If anything is derived elsewhere, I will mention that. If I say anything here, expect it has come from my own mind. This article isn’t well-written, my previous article explains why that is. So excuse my amateurism in research and writing.


I like to visualize things to understand them better. Sometimes I put things in dimensions, whether more dimensions than these things really have, or less dimensions, to better understand relative relations and how things behave relative to one another.

Here, imagine the behavior patterns of an individual human as a path in 2D space. Time flows from left to right, so a line representing behavior goes from left to right as time passes by. A straight line from left to right indicates pure instinct behavior (I like to refer to it as the ‘true path’) over time. Meaning that they don’t force themselves to do anything, they do whatever they feel like doing with no regard for literally anything. This ‘true path’ is established over generations behaving relatively the same and teaching their offspring to behave the same way, strengthening the neural connections in the brain that make up that ‘true path’.

Now that we’ve established that a perfectly straight line from left to right indicates a purely instinctual behavior pattern over a period of time, let’s see what deviating from that means…

Since the individual behaves a certain way naturally, any change from those behavior patterns is controlled by the individual’s cognition. That is, self-control. That change is indicated by an imperfectly straight line (some deviation, up or down.)

The angle of that deviation from the perfectly straight line, is how much effort of self-control the individual exerted on themselves. I like to refer to that as willpower. Makes sense to me.

The longer and sharper the individual deviates, the harder it gets to maintain that deviation and the more tempting it is to go back to that straight line.

That is ego depletion.

Well, maybe not “ego depletion” itself, but something that makes it hard for us to completely control our behavior by choice. We all often hate doing boring work or studying for a boring class. I’m using “ego depletion” to refer to that difficulty. Not claiming the theory of ego depletion is true. Just using it to get the message across.

Now that we have the imagery established, let’s dig a bit deeper as to why this exists

I like to wonder why. Why we feel hunger. Why we like to help other people. What benefit do we get for giving some of our own to others. And so on.

So for this hypothesis, the why is as follows…

As we evolved our intelligence, we became more self-aware of our behavior. Sometimes our thoughts conflicted with our behavior patterns (e.g. Our cognition says it’s better to do A, logically. But our instinct tells us to do B. Conflict.) So in those cases we chose to behave differently than we usually do. So we exert self-control and take over our behavior, cognitively. Makes sense because sometimes we know things that help us survive that our ancestors didn’t experience and base their lives around.

But not every time our cognition tells us something our behavior knows less about. Sometimes we are fooled. Sometimes we arrive at the wrong conclusions. Maybe we didn’t have enough info. Or maybe the thing we’re using our intelligence to survive requires knowledge beyond our reach at the time. Either way, sometimes our instincts know better than our brains.

So because of this competition, cognition vs instinct, we evolved this whole dilemma of self-control. This deviation as I visualized earlier.

It makes sense that we use this mechanic to regulate our cognition’s convictions versus our instinct’s convictions. Our instinct is based off of generations of experience, and our cognition is based off of our own experience and intellect. Sometimes one is correct and the other is wrong.

The difficulty in deviating from our ‘true path’ is evolved because that ‘true path’ was honed over a very very long time. Our experience and our survival so far judges it as “safe”. So following that straight line is a guaranteed survival strategy. Willpower is there to indicate the intensity of deviation, the “danger zone”. It keeps us reminded that this new way of behaving is unfamiliar, so it’s not safe.

That was all within the context of our very very primitive ancestors who are either early anatomically modern humans, or even before that.

Fast forward to today, this ‘true path’ is different from one person to another. These habits and this comfort zone that requires willpower to deviate from, we acquire from the way we were raised. That way of living is the reason our caretakers survived. So our instincts trust it. Deviation means risk of dying.

The theory of ego depletion claims willpower is a finite resource we tap into whenever we exert self-control, and opposing theories claim this theory is false in that sense, and tons of peer review and replication research poke holes in that theory. I personally believe there’s an in-between no one is seeing. Can’t wait for the scientific community to figure that out. If I become a billionaire, I’ll donate money to help research this. This is crucial for humanity to grow to the next step. Which is why I’m so obsessed about it.