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The Moral Muscle with Roy Baumeister

Dr. Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist known for his research in a number of diverse areas, including: self-control, decision-making, the need to belong, human sexuality, self-destructive behaviors, and free will. He has published more than 600 empirical articles and 35 books. His work has been cited more than 187,000 times, landing him on the ISI highly-cited researcher list twice. In this podcast, we discuss his work with self-control, the so-called “moral muscle,” and the challenges put forward against the strength model of self-control.

APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). The Moral Muscle with Roy Baumeister (2019, December 17).  [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


Note: This transcript was generated automatically. Please excuse typos and errors.

Roy Baumeister: 00:01:11 I did my education in the 1970s back then there wasn't as much interest in morality. The development to list. We're looking at it in terms of Kohlberg's stages which I was coming out of philosophy and I thought that was a very inspired way of looking at it. But everyone was talking about self and identity issues. And so that was in the, in the zeitgeist. So I thought that sounded interesting to this was, you know, in terms of society, this is kind of the, the hippie era had two stages. One was political and I've never been very political. But then the second was sort of introspective, religious spiritual. So I kinda came in with that and the idea that we can look inside ourselves and discover the truth that this was this is quite appealing to many, a young person, including myself.

Roy Baumeister: 00:02:11 And while society was interested, so were the academics, there's a lot of study in that. So in graduate school I got started on the idea of self presentation. The way people were talking about social psychology processes, all had to do with how people think of themselves and they want to protect their self esteem or establish, verify their self-concept, things like that. So it was kind of a solitary affair. I remember being in an experiment and reading it and we got some feedback or whatever and they told me I'd failed at something. And later on I was in graduate school. Like I looked that up cause it was published and he said, Oh it changed how people felt about themselves. And I remember, no, it didn't change how I felt about myself, but I did wonder whether the person who gave it to me, had seen it cause it made me look really bad.

Roy Baumeister: 00:03:07 That got me started on the idea that people are more concerned with how others perceive them than how they perceived themselves. Which over time became one of the themes of my career, which is inner processes serve interpersonal functions. So I've been a contrarian to the fields establishment right. Since graduate school or everyone else talked about the solitary mind. And its processes and its kind of the way psychology looks one mind at a time. And ironically even social psychology looks at that way. Whereas I was thinking, no, what's inside there is there to help us relate to others. So my dissertation was on self-presentation or gave people sort of bogus feedback on a personality test that they'd received either favorable or unfavorable and then it was either public or private. And then we saw how we changed their behavior and change their self ratings and everything like that.

Roy Baumeister: 00:04:03 And well, consistent with my, my, my own experiences if they got this feedback privately, it made no difference at all and how they rated themselves as far as I could tell. But if they got it publicly and other people supposedly were know about it, including the person they were going to interact with then it changed how they presented themselves, how they thought of themselves. And so that became a theme. So the, the first decade of my career was really focused on self presentation and sometimes self-esteem, which seemed to interact in various ways and tie in. And I began to think of even the trait of self esteem as much more about how people present themselves to others than necessarily how they, they think about themselves. Your opinion of yourself. You can continue to revise it or can be tentative or don't even really need to care about it a great deal except when you have to make a practical decision like, you know, can I ski down the ski slope without breaking my leg?

Amber Cazzell: 00:05:13 So the self-esteem, you're saying, you started to think about it less as how good I feel about myself and more as how good I feel about how other people see me?

Roy Baumeister: 00:05:23 Well, at least drives your approach to how other people see you. So I'd like to think self-esteem really is how you think of yourself. But it's effects come through how you present yourself to others. And people who have doubts about themselves they want to avoid looking bad. And people who have high self esteem and think they're great, they they don't worry about looking bad. They're more willing to take chances and gambles and want the attention to be focused on them. And will try things out, confident things will, will, will work out well. So it's talk about the difference between self protection and self enhancement. The people with high self esteem orient more towards self enhancement. And the lows give priority to self protection. Yeah. Not having anything bad happen to look bad. So thoughts about the self emerge there for awhile and then in the 80s, some of the leaders in the field started saying that how the self regulates itself.

Roy Baumeister: 00:06:28 Yeah. That's another thing that should be studied. And they were saying not, it's not just one more thing the self does, but it's really a conceptual key to how the whole self is organized. So the leaders I'm thinking of Charles Carver and Shelley Taylor. Carver had done his graduate work in the 70s on, on self-awareness, which is one of the most fundamental processes in terms of the self. And I ended up doing a fair amount of self-awareness research to cause the methods were good and interesting and important. I would got Carver caught up is that you never just aware of yourself. This goes back even to public lands saying this, you never just aware of yourself, the way you might be aware of a song on the radio or tables sitting there is something like, Oh, there that is. But rather you're always comparing yourself against some standard of how you should be.

Roy Baumeister: 00:07:23 You know, you look in the mirror, it's not just, Oh, hello, it's a, Oh, I need to comb my hair, or this sweater doesn't look good on me, or something like that. It's always comparing yourself to some standard. So in, in Wickland's thinking, this is just sort of a interesting quirk about self-awareness. But Carver said, well, maybe the, what that means is if the purpose of self-awareness is to change yourself, is to regulate yourself. So you compare to your standards and you want to adjust your behavior. So the purpose is not whether you feel good or bad looking at yourself in the mirror but rather you see that you need to comb your hair and so you do it. And that way conserve self-presentation. You can make a better impression that way. Or on other things. They found people work harder on tasks.

Roy Baumeister: 00:08:14 If they're made aware of themselves, well then you have a better idea of trying to live up to expectations and perform at your best. So was a kind of a profound idea that sank in with me that self-awareness despite this vast amount of research forward, it's really in service of, of self regulation. So I set out to read this self-regulation literature, which at the time there weren't a lot of social psych studies on that specifically the way there are now. It was scattered through studies on how people go on diets to lose weight or to quit smoking or things like that. So I made the best sense I could have that literature. And with the Dianne Tice we wrote our first book losing control which we wrote over as a purely academic book, but it did surprisingly well for, for that, a lot of people bought it and were interested in it, sort of attuned us to the idea that well out in the world, people know self control is a problem that many of them have and wish they had, wish they had more.

Roy Baumeister: 00:09:29 In all that, I sort of got the vague impression from some findings that people act like they had a limited amount of energy for self control. Now at this time, energy models were completely out of fashion. Nobody talked about energy and psychology.

Amber Cazzell: 00:09:48 Were they around before that , and then went out of fashion or?

Roy Baumeister: 00:09:49 Well yeah, when we started to come up with the findings we looked for anybody who thought about the self in terms of energy and couldn't really find anyone since Freud. So we use the term ego depletion. It was sort of Freud's term for the self sort of as a homage to him because he had a or acknowledge that the self was partly made of energy and nobody in the past half century had said anything like that in back in the eighties and nineties. It was all about information processing and the, the brain was a computer.

Roy Baumeister: 00:10:29 So it was just how you analyze the data, you know, how your mind analyzes the data and what it processes even motivation was a sort of in, in, in doubt and in question. Then so it was the cognitive approach was above everything else and that had really little or no space for any sort of energy model. So her on sabbatical and I was finishing the book and send it back home to graduate students. So they could see what we were thinking about. And one of them, Mark Muraven even read the part about the limited to energy and said, well, I wonder if we could see test that in the laboratory. And up to this point, he had not had much success with the laboratory studies. So he ran a few where he had people engage in self control first to use up some of their energy and then gave them a second unrelated task.

Roy Baumeister: 00:11:27 And lo and behold, sure enough, they did worse on the second half. On the second task suggesting that the first task had indeed used up some kind of energy for them and leaving them with less to do the other. So this, this was a surprising finding to us, but it, it, it, it, it happened to replicated very consistently. So we we kind of stuck with that. And the first studies were published in I think 98. And that led to a great deal more research, got a grant, and it's expanded in lots of directions and we've revised the theory many times since then. A lot of people sort of approach their careers that I have my precious idea and I'm going to fight for it till the end. And, and, and that is, I think what may be best for the field.

Roy Baumeister: 00:12:28 Cause then each idea gets tried out to the maximum. It's just never been my approach. Partly the way I was brought up. My parents had this view of the world. That was very well thought out. But when I got to adolescence I thought, well wait a minute, this isn't right. And so I sometimes say I was raised by wolves, by which I mean I don't have any allegiance to my view of the world that I was brought up with this. I said, well, they're right about some things but wrong about a lot of others. And so I wanted to end up knowing what is right, which meant I was going to have to get used to changing my opinions. So unlike others who were sort of proud and admire, who stick to their guns and fight for their, their ideas to the death I've always thought, well, I, I sort of make it a point of pride of providing my opinions and changing them. That's certainly the theory about self control, which for morality, I guess that was a 99 paper, we called it the moral muscle.

Amber Cazzell: 00:13:34 Yeah, so the, the moral muscle, the moral muscle self-control paper is the paper that I first read as an undergrad that I became familiar with your work through. And of course that's as you know, something that I've continued to be interested in in study. And that I have said, you and I have talked about this off the recording too, but that the idea that self control is a moral muscle is something that is somewhat controversial. So at what point did you start to associate self-control with morality as having a special or specific role in morality?

Roy Baumeister: 00:14:25 I'm not sure how far back that goes. Obviously close to the beginning. If the first paper was 99 and the, the first got depletion papers in 98 I mean, self-control enables you to override one impulse and do what's better in the long run. And that can be better for you, but it also can be morally better. I think certainly in how we think about morality, when we get away from the stages of moral reasoning Kohlberg approach is it, do you overcome selfish impulses so that you can do what society values and what's best for the group and what may be best for you in the long run as well. So the things like quitting smoking and or my interest in addiction and so on has been more recent where you and I've worked on that. But that's a short term, long term thing.

Roy Baumeister: 00:15:29 In I think it was a Ainslie remark, you know, and you've been smoking, it's always rational to have one more cigarette cause one of my cigarettes not gonna kill you and give you a definite pleasure. But the accumulation of those choices over time is very bad for you. So you have to project into the future and say, I'll be glad if I don't smoke this cigarette and come back and let that guide your your decision in the presence. And in the same way morality or I noticed, right with the 10 commandments, mostly there are things you should not do which is much like self control. A lot of it is stopping you from doing things that you feel like doing, but that you, you should not do. So it was a substantial overlap with the morality and self control there.

Amber Cazzell: 00:16:26 Were you saying that Kantian view, not Kantian, I'm sorry, Kohlberg and views are kind of in alignment with the self control or were you saying that those are, are not in alignment with your thoughts about self control? And I'm just curious because earlier you had said that that Kohlberg seemed somewhat uninspiring in the philosophical underpinnings of his theory.

Roy Baumeister: 00:16:50 I, yes. Well, I mean it was a, a valliant attempt to translate philosophical ideas into a psychological stage theory and and so on. But I didn't know. I, I, it's been awhile since I looked into it and my impression is the philosophers who study morality were not all that impressed. With how well it's done in a, you know, at any time you take complex ideas and reduce them into a sort of checklist there's going to be some loss. So Kohlberg's approach, I think this is great blossoming in moral psychology in the past decade. And to some extent or even two decades, they might say that goes with getting away from the Kholberg roots, which is the web. There's a right one way and a wrong way to do moral reasoning. And if we want to morality, we should look at how people reason about moral dilemmas.

Roy Baumeister: 00:17:54 A big change with the John Haidt's beginning to say, well, look, when people actually face a moral dilemma, they don't engage in moral reasoning. They they have their intuitions, they have their feelings of what's right and wrong, and they act on that. And then maybe later they engage in moral reasoning. Initially I think he was kind of dismissive of the moral reasoning all together, that it was just sort of a rationalization after the fact. And then I think he came around to say actually being able to explain and justify what you're doing to other people. That's tremendously important cause we live in societies and we may do what we want, but we've got to be able to convince others. And I suspect too that people pretty soon figure out if they're doing stuff that they won't be able to justify to others.

Roy Baumeister: 00:18:45 They better act differently cause they will get in trouble there. So the immediate reaction might be a feeling that this is good or this is not good. But you can interrogate your own feelings. And a lot of this probably occurs after the fact. I think. The way people learn morality as they do something and then they're made to feel guilty about it and then they reflect on what they did understand the principles and in their own accounts. We published some studies on guilt in the 90s. If they feel guilty, they're more likely to say they learned a lesson or that they changed their behavior and learned not to do that again in a similar situation. So all of this works with, you know, spreading the self across time again, which is a key thing that, that self control is for. And I'm not saying you can't have self control just operating in the present moment, but it becomes much more powerful for expanding the self over timed project into the future. I think I'll be sorry if I do this now and then come back to the president and alter your behavior in the present. Most animals not really capable of doing that beyond you know, an immediate anticipated response.

Amber Cazzell: 00:20:04 So in your view, is self-control like a a tool that you're using when you're learning morality or is it sort of the essence of morality? So for example, our moral exemplars, are you thinking of moral exemplars as having just this massive pool of ego resources that they've using kind of your muscle model, they've exercised, they've built up over time? Or do you think of them as having used self control and sort of gotten used to behaving in a way that's socially acceptable?

Roy Baumeister: 00:20:42 Well this, this is this is an interesting complex set of issues. And even my thinking about self control is changed again in the last seven or eight years. It seems that what people with high trait, self-control do and successful people is they use their, their self control to form good habits and break bad habits. So self control works through habits to be most successful. And you, you, you may use it, you know, in a critical moment when you're sorely tempted or something. I mean, that's what might stand out in memory. But the heroic single act of self control is, is not, it's not, it's everyday currency. For example, we found people with high trait self-control do better at work and school. And you might think, well, how would that come into there? Is it so you can make yourself stay up all night to complete a assignment that's due tomorrow? That might stand out in your memory when you forced yourself to do something really difficult.

Roy Baumeister: 00:21:56 But actually people who could sell controlled on to their, they develop good study habits and a term has, has a legitimate usage study habits. And so they don't get themselves into the position where something's due tomorrow and they need to stay up all night to, to finish it. And so it could be the same with with morality. One thing the human psych is really well designed to do is to automatize things. This is something I looked at early in my career and when we were studies of how why people choke under pressure cause you learn a skill by consciously directing your hands to hold the tennis record or play the piano or whatever. But after awhile it becomes habitual and you don't pay attention to it. Under pressure, self-awareness goes back up and you start paying attention to how you're doing it again, but more throws you off. Then enabling the habits. So you want to focus externally to prevent that kind of choking. So it could well be the same sort of thing with, with morality that you cultivate a moral habits. And so their self control is crucial early in that process. But then when you're the moral exemplar going along with it, you don't have to stop and engage in reasoning and self control and, and all that. You just automatically do what you're supposed to.

Amber Cazzell: 00:23:32 So how did you disentangle, um, creation from, from like constant everyday you said usage of self control in your studies? I remember reading a paper that kind of talked about that as a surprising finding at the end and I was having a hard time understanding how you came to that conclusion.

Roy Baumeister: 00:23:54 That's a little bit of a funny story. I have two lovely Dutch colleagues Catrin Finkenauer and Denise de Ridder. And they kind of you said, well, we're doing a meta analysis of the traits, self-control scale and June Tangney needed to, and I had developed it about a decade earlier. I think that started that we just wanted to get a good measure and looked at the existing measures of trait, self control and nothing was very reliable. So I said, well, we could make up our own or wouldn't be too hard. And we published it and it's been tremendously useful for a lot of people are some 5,000 citations at this point. So we wanted to do a meta analysis of all the work that had been done up to that point in the first six, seven years since the scale had been published.

Roy Baumeister: 00:24:44 So I said, okay, great. And I can be glad to help if I can. And so they conferred with me. They did all the hard work of assembling the literature and in the findings and doing the analysis. So one thing was they coded the behaviors. You don't just say it doesn't work in general and you look for what might moderate the effect. So one thing they thought, well, would it be automatic behaviors or controlled behaviors since the automatic control distinction is very fundamental and in psychology which would it have more effect on it? And the prediction was obvious cause self control is about controls should affect the control behaviors and the automatic behaviors should be fairly immune to it. So he went through and coded all the dependent variables and ran analysis and it came out significant in the opposite direction.

Roy Baumeister: 00:25:39 And so they're completely flummoxed by this and they said, well, maybe we can use some kind of John Barghian theory that automatic stuff is really controlled or controlled stuff is really automatic or something like that. I've never tried to explain this awkward finding in the draft they sent me. I said, well that's, this won't work. We have to figure out. And so what I do and ever seriously confused with the data is go back and look at it as precisely as possible. What exactly did the data say? So I said, go back and get a list of those behaviors and let's see what they mean, which ones are coded automatic and which ones are controlled. And so, you know, that took a couple of months, but they came back to me and said, well, the things that got coded as automatic were mostly habits. So that's what came to the key change in my thinking. And, and there's two as we talked about it. Okay. Well, people with good self control,

Roy Baumeister: 00:26:44 It's, it's not the, a heroic act of willpower in the moment when, you're sorely tempted or you tried to quit alcohol, but you really want a drink and there's a whiskey right there and you're talking, no, no, no. The successful people farm good habits and break bad habits. And this morality was not in our, our purview at this point but just in eating and dieting and as I said, schoolwork and getting along with others and so on. All the things we looked at, the breaking bad habits and forming good habits seems to be the, the strategy that, that people with good self control use. Not long after that, we had an finding from another interesting study. We did a experience sampling study. Wilhelm Hoffman, Kathleen Vohs and I ran this giant study on desire and it didn't really have a big self control aspect at all.

Roy Baumeister: 00:27:52 We just realized in the cognitive revolution, motivation was sort of forgotten about. And so, well, every day form of motivation is designer and we just didn't know how often do people have desires. We didn't know if they were having a desire every five minutes or three times a day or once a week. So we said, let's just find out and you can't really get this in the laboratory. So we have people carry beepers around which went off and ask them, okay, do you have a desire right now? And we didn't know, maybe people that hardly ever report desires. So if not, did you have a desire in the past half hour? And I just wanted something just hoping to get some sort of answers. And then we asked them whether they, what they desired and how strong was the desire. And were they resisting it and did they end up acting on it and all those, all those things.

Roy Baumeister: 00:28:46 Well, it turned out we had included a trait. Self control is one of the measures with that too cause we wanted to see, do they more likely to give into their desires and so on. So the simple prediction was how we can look at all these people. How often do you resist desires? So again, we thought, well, people have high self control since it's forward resisting desires. They should do it more often. But to our surprise was significant in the opposite direction. People with high trait self-control were less likely to report resisting desires. And so we had to break that down. We sorted it to problem desires, our buying desires. You know, like the, the least problematic desire was the desire for a cup of tea. You know, so if you want a cup of tea, you don't need self-control, you can just go have a cup of tea.

Roy Baumeister: 00:29:34 But if you're at work and you want to go to sleep or have sex or something that you know, then that's a problem by games. And sure enough that's where the real difference lay that people with high trait self control didn't have these problematic desires that they needed to resist. They were more skilled at putting themselves in situations where they're not going to be tempted and not going to use it with, with further work. I should add this to a or we did another experience sampling specifically on trait self-control that was just published last year. And looked for did people feel depleted or show their subjective signs being, being depleted. Now with trait, self control in the laboratory when we started getting the willpower depletion effects, you want to know well is it the high trait? Self control are the lowest trait self control people.

Roy Baumeister: 00:30:31 So just out of curiosity, we threw the measure into a lot of studies and in general we found nothing that people with good trait, self control perform better or whatever. Then people with bad traits, self control and people who are depleted, performed where some people are not depleted. But these are just two main effects side by side. And there was no interaction. It seemed to affect everybody the same. However, in our experience sampling study. There are people of high trait self-control reported a lot less depletion. So here you got one finding in the laboratory where high and low traitsself control are equally depleted. And in the real world it's a little low trait, self control or feeling it a lot more. But the difference is the laboratory, everybody does the same task. We control what they have to do. Whereas outside again the people with good traits have control.

Roy Baumeister: 00:31:22 They can form good habits, they can avoid problems, they can manage things, they do more planning as we found in recent studies. So the people had lost trade self control or basically digging themselves into holes and having to dig themselves out frequently, which the people with high trait self control, you know, spare themselves, all that grief. And I can say you're one of the best ways to reduce, I mean we all have stress, but one of the best ways to reduce the stress in your life that you cause yourself is to stop messing up and stop creating problems for yourself. And it seemed, people with high trait self-control are better at that. Again, they do more planning and they have more good habits, break more bad habits, avoid problem situations. So all this kind of indicated we needed to look at more at the macro level than at the single act of self control to understand what successful people do.

Amber Cazzell: 00:32:21 Yeah. Interesting. So all of that also with just with respect to morality, it seems like a person's moral compass matters too. Because we could imagine situations where self-control could actually aid a negative behavior, right? Like they're like, there have been research studies like coding shooters, manifestos and things like that and they show like, okay, well the, like this takes a lot of methodical planning and all of these things to execute even though it's horrible. So what are some of your thoughts about those studies and under what circumstances self-control is a boon as opposed to something that's actually aiding antisocial behaviors?

Roy Baumeister: 00:33:10 Well, I don't know the shooter study, I'd like to say that, but my, my take on this in general is with self control is a tool. And mostly it's good to have tools and you can do whatever you're wanting to do better. Now that means if you're set on doing dastardly things, having good self control, you will do them better. It's really very similar to intelligence. Intelligence and self control are quite similar in some ways. They are the two traits psychologists found that seem to improve your life outcomes in in every, every sphere they've been studied. But sure enough, if you're bent on murder, torture, organized crime then being intelligent and having good self control will enable you to be more successful at that as well. But again, it's like blaming the tool for its use. I mean, hammers are good. But you can, you can hurt somebody with a hammer if you use it as a weapon, but that doesn't mean the hammers are bad. Mostly hammers really are highly beneficial and we wouldn't be sitting in doors in this nice house were not for hammers.

Amber Cazzell: 00:34:29 Yeah. So from your, from your perspective self-control is purely a tool. It needs to be combined with sort of a, a good moral compass. If it's gonna lead to good ends and typically it seems that it is, people are using self-control in ways to benefit their lives and others' lives. Do you have a sense, since you have such a broad interest base in a lot of this self-regulation and, and self-reflection, do you have a sense for where people are getting something like a moral compass from? Is it just like through even just the process of being reared as a child or what are some of your thoughts?

Roy Baumeister: 00:35:18 Well, I, one's moral compass come from, profound question. I'm guessing that's a combination of socialization and innate tendencies. My friend Marty Seligman had this idea of innately prepared, you know, we say morality's in eight, but you're prepared to acquire it. So you learn it faster than you might learn other things. There's work by countless people, Paul Bloom comes to mind. And so I'm looking at moral and prosocial reactions in children and they seem to show up quite early. They like people who are nice. It doesn't quite get rise to the level of principled morality, but they can tell and they prefer people who are nice to other people and even abstract shapes. If the one helps the other go up the Hill versus blocks it down, they like the helper more than the the blocker. So there's this orientation toward prosociality which probably has a, innate roots.

Roy Baumeister: 00:36:31 Still I believe that upbringing and socialization make a difference and help mold this into a into a, a fine law abiding, moral valued member of society. We certainly have in one of my other lines of work, people have a strong desire to belong and groups will reject people who break the rules, who are immoral. Which is true. Going back to the earliest Hunter gather groups and still clear in modern society the law takes over to some extent for morality, but it takes over in a pretty vigorous way that people who break the laws get put in prison and otherwise separated from society. So it's really self interested for the individual to learn the moral rules and the laws and to and to obey them. Most of the time I see, you know, I think as we talked about self-presentation, which you study the difference between public and private behavior, people are a lot more moral and prosocial in public than in private.

Roy Baumeister: 00:37:39 So they care about the impression they're making on others and morality is, is part of that. Now certainly people internalize this some degree. And that Farquhar book on the moral exemplars, you know, these are people who are living up to high moral standards not really being concerned with other people watching or not, but and often to the detriment of their relationships. It seems like they were very hard to live with and often unpleasant for their, their partners. Ah, and so on. So one doesn't internalize it to varying degrees. But you know, the fundamental concern are we adapted to be members of the group. And for that, among humans, your moral reputation is tremendously important. So I think it starts with that, with wanting to be seen as morals and then gradually becomes internalized to varying degrees.

Roy Baumeister: 00:38:42 And some people may not internalize it, but may live perfectly exemplary lives simply because I don't want to take a chance on being found out or having, having something bad happen to them. Nevertheless, I think with the automatization process going to study, I think by Fiery Cushman a year or two ago, that people have the automatic reaction that immoral behaviors are not possible. They're outside the realm of what they consider possible. So that suggests that that as you acquire a sense of morality. It shapes what you see as the range of possible behaviors that you could engage in. You know, and after reflection you realize where like could really, you know, steal the money or something like that. But the initial reaction is that the morality shuts that out. So again, guides you without having to struggle and without needing a lot of self control on the morally good path.

Amber Cazzell: 00:39:47 So the interview, the last, the last podcast interview is with Tage Rai and like social relation regulation, morality is relationship regulation. And w which also reminds me of the earlier part of our conversation today. It seems like there are cultural differences in how people regulate their relationships and so forth. And so it seems like there are also gonna be cultural differences in how people use their self control, which makes sense if they're using it for maintaining a social appearance that's going to have different ideals in different cultures. But in your studies or are you aware of any work that suggests that self-control actually operates differently from culture to culture? Or does that seem to be fairly universal, this sort of energy idea?

Roy Baumeister: 00:40:48 It seems to be mostly similar in terms of the process though. The one exception there's a paper a couple of years ago suggesting that people in India didn't have the ego depletion effect. And I want to see more replication of our evidence about that. That's really intriguing.

Amber Cazzell: 00:41:05 So what, what do you mean by the depletion effects? Like they were still just as capable of,

Roy Baumeister: 00:41:10 Yeah. After they exerted self control, then they exerted self-control. Fine. I guess on the second task. So that, that's an intriguing challenge and that would suggest, you know, very different process of that. The mind is just somehow built and structured differently. There which or again, to be profoundly interesting.

Amber Cazzell: 00:41:38 Has that study been replicated? Does it

Roy Baumeister: 00:41:45 I want to see more on that. I, I again, I don't know quite what to think of that, but that's to me the most interesting and intriguing of the cross cultural comparing comparison findings on self control operating differently. Again, you can use it to pursue different kinds of goals and different it's, it's a tool so that you can use the tool in different ways, in different culture, but that, that the tool itself is different that that is potentially a profound interest.

Amber Cazzell: 00:42:20 I wonder if there are any other interpretations that could work for accounting for some of these effects. So I know Angela Duckworth's research group has, has talked about, well maybe, well, so first of all I'm going to, I'm going to back up a little bit and just ask you to maybe compare and contrast self control and grit. I think grit has been kind of the hot thing in the public eye. Last couple of years since she, since Angela Duckworth published her book. My understanding is that grit is different to the extent that it adds this compassion or passion piece into it. But maybe I should get your take on this since you're the expert,

Roy Baumeister: 00:43:06 Not expert on, on grit and I've known Angela for many years and big admirer of her her work. So I was interested in grit because a big part of it is self control and sometimes some of the studies I've looked at more carefully, it seemed like self control was doing most of the work in terms of producing the results. But there could be other things as well. Certainly in social science. One variable explanations of things don't hold up in the long run. So so I sort of look at the, the grit is a, a vaguely allied line of work and hope it does well. Splitting the other parts. I mean Angela's focus is more practical in mind and she wants to, how can we get kids to do better in school and stuff like that. And I'm more basic curiosity about how is the mind constructed. So for her putting together a couple things that give you the most power

Amber Cazzell: 00:44:19 That mean passion and self-control.

Roy Baumeister: 00:44:21 Yes. Yeah. That that would be a logical thing to do for me. Trying to figure things out. I want to keep things separate and say, okay, well what's really accounting for the variance or the changes in behavior and things like that. So okay. Yeah. So control's a big part of grit. So to me that's, that fits well.

Amber Cazzell: 00:44:45 And so she, at least in one paper had suggested at one point that the depletion effect could be a matter of changing motivation as opposed to, as opposed to still having the same motivation but fail, failing to execute on it. Um so yeah, they said there was something about, it was all reducible to cost benefit analysis. I don't know. I haven't looked at that for a while, but there are a lot of different findings. The people come up to this literature on ego depletion and want to say, right, I've got a new way to explain everything. But they mostly just pick and choose a few things that they can explain. If you want to do a thorough job, you got to explain the full range of findings and and of the cost benefit analysis aspect.

Roy Baumeister: 00:46:19 There are a lot of things that doesn't apparently explain very well. I'm thinking of a Dan Boldens paper that can wipe out the depletion effect by rinsing your mouth with a glucose drink and splitting it out. So how does that fit into, how does that change your cost benefit calculations? You know, that, yeah, so people proposing alternative views, they kind of just tend to leap pass over anything they can't explain, but I'm really wanting to keep, you know, released work toward a theory that, that integrates all the relevant facts.

Amber Cazzell: 00:47:03 So what do you view as being some of the most important critiques or any evidence against the self control depletion theory?

Roy Baumeister: 00:47:22 Evidence against it.

Amber Cazzell: 00:47:23 Or just the biggest criticisms of it?

Roy Baumeister: 00:47:27 Well, the two sets of one is that some people don't replicate the effect. Um so, and then inspired to say that well there's no such effect and the others come up with alternative theories, there's a motivation. The original motivation theory was a Inzlicht and Schmeichel's, you know, where, you switch from what you have to do, what you want to then there's the cost benefit thing that Kurtzman had. Then there was the Veronica Job's whether it's all about your, your beliefs or anything. And the thing is, I think each of these clients has something to contribute to add to the theory that the idea that it can replace everything else. This looks very dubious to me. Obviously the two lines of critique, one thing, there's no effect. And the other saying I have a different explanation for the effect. These completely contradict each other. So one of them has to be completely wrong. You can't have a correct alternative explanation if there's no effect.

Amber Cazzell: 00:48:35 So what's your sense about fails replication attempts? Are they just, are they happening at the rate you would expect by chance or is there something more to it?

Roy Baumeister: 00:48:47 Alright. I don't really know. I'm always surprised and disappointed. It does take a little skill, I guess to get it right. So work, but it worked very consistently for us. I, much of my work is as literature reviewer. And so although in the laboratory have basically done the rejection, belongingness and the self control stuff for the last 20 years published on a lot of other different topics cause I go and look at the view and I often come up against controversies in areas and you know, there, I'm just trying to figure out what, what is the takeaway message? So if I use those same methods that are used there if one person has a finding and a couple other papers say, well we don't get it, then I'm suspicious of that finding. But if several people get it in different laboratories working independently and then somebody else says, well, I don't get it, then I think there's

Roy Baumeister: 00:49:47 Probably really something there. There you go. Depletion effects been replicated in dozens if not hundreds of laboratories or there certainly hundreds of significant published findings like that. So to me it's just a, or it's beyond plausible. Yeah, wildly implausible that is, you know, to suggest that there's no real effect there. They're preregistered studies, they're large sample studies. A class a month or just multi-site, significant application. And in general, these multisite replications for all sorts of things don't, don't work all that well. So it's been christening a lot of the findings in the field, but as others are pointing out a lot of things depend on the, on the context and I'm getting the person involved and the researcher comes up with something often has to tailor the methods right to that subject population and get them to whatever will work best with this.

Roy Baumeister: 00:51:04 This group my own story is using anagrams, having people unscramble letters to make words. I did my graduate work at Princeton and the, you know, the subjects serve over half of them are high school valedictorians. You have to have really challenging anagrams. So I would have six letter anagrams and you know, some people would still get them all. And if, you know, if everybody gets them all or if nobody gets them, you know, even if your hypothesis is true about what will alter performance, they won't show up in that. So I had to use six letter ones there and I moved to case Western reserve, which was bright kids, but mostly, you know, a lot of our first generation college students and so on. So they're the six letter anagrams tended to be to hard. We had to shift to five later ones. I moved to Florida state or at the time they were letting in anyone who had graduated from high school in Florida.

Roy Baumeister: 00:51:58 And so they're ready to go shift to four-letter anagrams. So my point is if you use the wrong difficulty, as you would tend to do in a multisite verification, are gonna use exactly the same list of anagrams and run it in 20 different universities. But even if the hypothesis was completely true you wouldn't get any effect in a lot of them because nobody could solve them. Yeah. It was the same with the cognitive reflection task that Shane Frederickson developed. I remember we started trying that at Florida state and most students got none of them, right, isn't right, right. Our daughter was in my office at one point and the grad student was saying, Hey, we didn't get any results, but oddly anybody solved any of the three questions. And I turned to her and I gave her the three. She, she got them, she had to think for a minute, but she got them right away.

Roy Baumeister: 00:52:58 Kind of made the jokes about that. So I don't want you to go to Florida state. So I have to make these adjustments. And so when they run these big studies with the same message across or the same measures across different things, well they don't work as well. And so, I mean, the one huge consistent finding is even if the multisite things work for whatever they're testing, it tends to a much smaller effect than the, than the original effect. And I've just got a paper published saying laboratory effect sizes are, you should be recognized as fairly meaningless anyway because they're artificially inflated and artificially deflated. And you can't tell, you know, the size of something in the laboratory has no bearing on what the size of the effect would be out in the real world. And it could go in the either, either direction.

Amber Cazzell: 00:53:49 What does that paper called? Or where would we find it?

Roy Baumeister: 00:53:54 Oh I would have to look that up.

Amber Cazzell: 00:53:58 Okay. I can link back to it.

Roy Baumeister: 00:53:59 It's just it was accepted at some Russian journal.

Amber Cazzell: 00:54:07 So are there certain types of depletion tasks that will replicate different places better? You think? Like I was, as you were talking about that it makes sense to me that certain like cognitive tasks would be more difficult one place or another. But I was also thinking about like decision fatigue and just like, you know, going mall shopping is exhausting. That seems like the type of thing that might be less or it might just be more universal. Like it's exhausting to make a series of somewhat trivial decisions.

Roy Baumeister: 00:54:48 Well, yes. So one of the big extensions on the depletion literature was when we found that making decisions also depleted willpower. So after making a lot of decisions yourself, control is worse. And after exerting self control, your decision making shifts toward either you don't want to decide or you make much more superficial decisions. So those are linked together. So your question was,

Amber Cazzell: 00:55:14 Was do you think that that might be a better place for people to, a better way for people to try and replicate depletion effects because it seems like, yeah, if you're comparing students at Princeton, at Case Western, at Florida state on a task that is also related to intelligence, potentially that might be a confounding factor. But decision fatigue just strikes me as something intuitively, which of course I could be wrong about. And of course it's an empirical question but it seems like decision fatigue might be the type of thing that would replicate better.

Roy Baumeister: 00:55:50 Yeah, that might be better. What we used in the original, my first study on decision fatigue was we had a whole set of products from a department store that had gone out of business. Cause we didn't know then if making hypothetical decision would deplete you as much as a real decision. So we had people make, it was about half an hour of making choices between pairs of them. And we said at the end, we'll randomly pick one, so you will get a product that you chose. Which motivated people to take it seriously. And that's, I think what emerged after that was it the hypothetical decisions weren't any more depleting than the real world ones. Other ones, there's real consequences, but you'd have to think it, make some difference. Deciding what to get for somebody you cared about was more depleting and deciding somebody who didn't much care about, but nevertheless making shopping decisions.

Roy Baumeister: 00:56:54 Did you want a red shirt or a red tee shirt or a blue t-shirt? Things like that. A large number of those did seem to deplete people. And I imagine that that might carry certainly across differences in intelligence better. Whether there are some cultures where they don't care about what they wear or whatever. Maybe those would have less impact in those two. So, I don't know, it's just sort of become a underappreciated aspect. And the whole replication thing in psychology is that I think, especially in social psychology, a lot of it depends on the context. And you know, the first study will tend to have a larger effect size than others because the researcher worked for a while to get it just right to get it to work. And, but he matched the things to the subject go. I was just talking to my, my own, one of my own mentors, Joel Cooper who's spent his career studying cognitive dissonance and he kind of laughed and said, yeah, I'm just waiting until they come for me. He says, dissonance will never work with the way they do these online, multiple multisite replications is, is, you know, you have to get the person involved and caring about the experiment and feeling like they made a choice and are responsible for it and all that stuff. And if you'd done to do that, that that won't work. And you know, dissonance is one of the foundational ideas of social psychology.

Amber Cazzell: 00:58:26 Yeah. So what just want to ask this quickly out of curiosity and then have one more question for you. But so what to, to what degree do you think the replication crisis is a big problem? And to what degree has it become sort of exaggerated by these situational factors we're discussing? And this is of course, like an opinion question. I don't know how you could, how you could have empirical knowledge about that at this point.

Roy Baumeister: 00:59:02 I'm, as I mentioned, I do a lot of literature reviews and even writing a methodology paper for generalists and literature viewers. And one of the guiding ideas is when you come to the literature, take the attitude, everybody has a good point and everybody overstates it. And it seems just, you know, it's not going to be always true, but as a rule of thumb, you'll be right more often than wrong with it. And I think that probably applies with the replication thing too. It's probably not nearly as bad as people are saying. But they do have a good point. We certainly could do better. Yeah. I think some of these improvements with the preregistering hypotheses and so on that these are very good solid developments. And there the greater transparency, you know, in, in fairness to like the people came before me, you know, back in the 60s and early seventies, there was no way to do the transparency You could now. You had to write it up and so on. There was no online depository to post your data. But so, you know, all these things are positive steps, but do we have to see the field is in crisis and ignore all the work in the past?

Roy Baumeister: 01:00:21 It's I don't know. So I have a textbook and it's sort of an issue. I talked to my textbook coauthor every gala that people really expect that we're gonna throw out all the history of the field on the chance that some of the old stuff doesn't replicate. Certainly some of the early things have been debunked. Now the Stanford prison experiment was always more of a demonstration than a real study, and now we're learning that they took more liberties than they acknowledged at the time, so it's even weaker than it looked. Nevertheless the Milgrim studies, you know, are, are classics and other people did find those in subsequent years as well. And I was important step in the history of the field. You just can't ignore all that. So I'm our believer in incremental improvement. I think what's going on with the concern over replication is in some ways doing a fair amount of harm.

Roy Baumeister: 01:01:30 The insistence that research has to be done a certain way. I'm more a believer that you want to study each topic with the best methods available. What's happening is people are just ceasing to study behavior all together. Even some of my own PhD approaches A's saying, Oh, just can't do that anymore. What we're trying to do. But it's just too much trouble. It takes too long to bring in people and run them through a laboratory procedure one at a time and everybody's just doing these online survey kind of things. And well, you know, it's okay for the field to do only one thing for a while, but still I think there's a significant cost to give up on behavior. And to to rely on the mechanical Turk sorts of things. Yeah. So

Amber Cazzell: 01:02:22 Yeah. Well, so I wanna backtrack a little bit here and just leave off with what your hopes for the future of research on self control and ego depletion are and what your personal future directions for that line of work are

Roy Baumeister: 01:02:46 Alright, well on ego depletion. Um I hope it continues to move forward and people continue. I mean it's possible someone will come up with an alternate explanation that really does fit everything, in which case I will change my opinion. But it looks at the amount of positive evidence for the effect is really quite extraordinary at this point. It's certainly more positive evidence than for most psychological phenomena. So if there's no effect there, then I don't know that I would believe and anything come up with in social psychology given our methods, which I think is why the, the radicals are trying to tear down in the field, you know, really kind of seized on this as a promising candidate. I think if I can tear this down or there's so much evidence for it and show that there's nothing there that would indeed discredit the field as a whole.

Roy Baumeister: 01:03:53 So that's appealing. But, and, and as I said, I, I share that assumption if there's nothing there cause you know we found those findings over and over again with best practices at the time. I think debating whether there's an effect it's become kind of tiresome and pointless that,uor need to get back to is building the theory and studying what it ties into. Are there Links to what happens in the brain and physiology and, or glucose in the bloodstream and so on. Uthat needs more work. Again, that's something, you know, the, the effect where we give people the eliminate manipulation and after they're depleted,uthat has worked. I think just about every time we've tried it that if they get lemonade mixed with sugar, it wipes out the depletion effect. And lemonade mixed with diet sweetener has, you know, leaves it intact.

Amber Cazzell: 01:04:46 What, what is the timeline on that? Like how long after a person drinks this lemonade concoction does it take for them to have increased ego resources?

Roy Baumeister: 01:04:58 Well, when we started doing that, my, my grad students looked it up [inaudible] and there was, it seems like it takes 10 to 12 minutes for when you drink sugar to get into the bloodstream. So we would often give them the drink when they arrived at the experiment. So it would be there

Roy Baumeister: 01:05:18 And it'd be through the 12 minutes by the time they'd gone through the instructions and had the first depleting task. Now I mentioned Molden had that gold paper where if you just rinse it around in your mouth and spit it out, that that seemed to work. So if that's true, now glucose is somewhat digested in the mouth. So some of it is getting into the bloodstream, only a little, but it's enough for the brain. And I think the system, what we've learned since then is that you know, you're feeling even the feeling of physical tiredness is something that brain puts together. It doesn't really constantly take an inventory of how much energy is in your body. It looks at what's it's using. So I think the rinsing around in your mouth, it's like a payday loan.

Roy Baumeister: 01:06:12 You know, it's like I'm getting paid tomorrow so I can buy something today. Cause you know, certainly in our evolutionary history, most of good tasting stuff in your mouth was going to be in your belly very shortly. We didn't take stuff into the mouth and spit it out. So that was enough of a signal to the brain that says, I don't need to conserve your Muraven's work. So the depletion effect isn't that your brain is out of fuel, which is kind of our initial naive assumption, but rather that it's conserving. It turns out muscle tiredness is mostly like that too. I mean, there is a point at which your muscle just can't function, but you feel tired long before that when you have this basic normal tiredness. The, the, the kinesiology researchers show, well, you actually can exert that muscle at full power if you have a good reason to.

Roy Baumeister: 01:07:09 And in the same way Muraven showed when you're depleted, you can self regulate really well. Suddenly if you know, we'll offer you $10. If you do really well at this task, they can suck it up and do it, then they're more depleted afterwards. But the depletion effect is a, is a conservation of limited energy and so the brain doesn't know how much it has, but I think it, it operates in a conserving mindset. Some argument that it looks at the adenosine, which is the byproduct of how much the fact that I've used self control or made decisions I've used up some of my willpower so I better conserve. I don't really know how much I, I have left. And then the same way can we, well, I'm taking in glucose, so it's going to be fine. More is coming in. I don't need to conserve as much. That's my best guess at present. But you know, this is the kind of area I'd like to see more research done on to get that nailed down. So it's time to stop retracing our tricks and start moving forward. I would say.

Amber Cazzell: 01:08:16 Well, thank you so much Roy. I learned a lot actually. I thought I was familiar with this, but I've still learned quite a bit and it's given me a lot to think about. Thanks for, for your conversation.

Roy Baumeister: 01:08:31 Thanks for having me.

Outro: 01:08:40 Thanks for listening. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, or requests, contact me at the moral science podcast is sponsored by ERA Inc a research and design think tank. That's reinventing how people interact with each other. Music throughout the program is Microobee by Keinzweiter and can be found at


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