The Limits of Self-Control: Roy Baumeister on the Effects of Willpower Depletion

December 3, 2013

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

What might heighten your emotional responses to these pictures?

Try willpower depletion. In his ongoing research, Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a current RSF Visiting Scholar, demonstrates the ways in which human willpower operates like a muscle, including showing fatigue after exertion. When willpower is depleted, subjects exhibit a number of interesting behaviors, including amplified emotional responses to both negative and positive images.

As Baumeister’s experiments show, after people have exerted self-control, they tend to perform worse on subsequent self-control tasks, indicating that willpower is finite and can be depleted. Studies also suggest that decision-making is affected by willpower, and that those with depleted willpower tend to express increased status quo bias and decreased willingness to compromise. For example, in one lab experiment conducted by Baumeister and colleagues, participants were first depleted by completing a Stroop color word test, which required them to exercise self-control by reading aloud the names of colors written in other colors:

The participants were subsequently shown three laptops ranging from cheap and low-quality to expensive and high-quality, with a middle option that balanced price and quality, and asked to pick one. Those who had been depleted tended to choose one of the extremes (expensive and high-quality or cheap and low-quality), rather than compromising on the middle option. By contrast, a control group that had not performed the Stroop test largely chose the mid-range laptop.

Self-control plays a significant role in society. Baumeister’s research has shown that people with good self-control excel not just at the personal behaviors we typically associate with willpower—such as dieting and quitting smoking—but also tend to do better at work and school, have better physical and mental health, and enjoy stronger relationships, among other positive characteristics. But if our self-control can diminish based on much we’ve already exercised, how do we maintain the benefits of good self-control?

In collaboration with Professor Kathleen Vohs, Baumeister is spending the 2013-2014 academic year in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation completing further research on self-control, including examining other effects of willpower depletion, how people recover from depletion, and the ways in which willpower can be replenished or strengthened. During their time in residence, Baumeister and Vohs will work to incorporate their findings into a series of journal articles.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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