Planning requires self-control, and ego depletion leads to planning aversion

By Hallgeir Sjåstad

14 February 2018 15:30

Planning requires self-control, and ego depletion leads to planning aversion

New paper published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “The Future and the Will: Planning requires self-control, and ego depletion leads to planning aversion”, by Hallgeir Sjåstad (postdoc at NHH/FAIR) and Roy Baumeister (Florida State University).

Planning takes self-control

We know from previous research that self-control is a strong predictor for positive outcomes in life – including good health, happiness, high educational performance, and good relationships. Why is this the case? One possible explanation is that a key function of good self-control is to help oneself succeed in the future by making effective plans in the present.

The present investigation was guided by the assumption that planning takes mental effort, and therefore, that the willingness to make plans relies on good self-control. By combining different studies in Norway and USA (total sample: 546 participants), the results confirmed this hypothesis consistently. Study 1 showed that people with high self-control as a personality trait made more plans than people with low self-control. Studies 2-4 used experiments in lab and field settings, and found that a state of low self-control due to mental exhaustion (“ego depletion”) made people averse to planning. In one of these experiments, consumers were recruited either right before or right after two hours of IKEA shopping. On average, the fatigued participants recruited after IKEA shopping were significantly less willing to make long-term plans than the well-rested participants in the pre-IKEA control group. More tightly controlled laboratory experiments found a similar result, showing that planning seems to rely on available self-control resources and a well-rested mind.

Planning vital to rationality

Planning is a vital feature of human rationality, because it enables people to make decisions based on what they want to achieve in the future. Research in psychology and behavioral economics have focused mostly on how people predict future events and whether they are willing to wait for delayed rewards. Without planning, however, the individual might end up having nothing good worth waiting for. It is therefore important to understand how and when people choose to make plans, as opposed to neglecting plans.

Seen as a whole, we conclude that wants and desires come easily, while planning requires mental work akin to self-control.

Read the paper at Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Read more papers from FAIR