What could the theory of “ego depletion” possibly have to do with global warming?
Ego depletion is the idea in psychology that humans have a limited amount of willpower that can be depleted. It’s been largely accepted as true for almost two decades, after two psychologists devised an experiment in self-control that involved fresh-baked cookies and radishes.
One group of test subjects were told they could only eat the radishes, another could eat the cookies. Then they were given an unsolvable puzzle to solve. The researchers found that radish eaters gave up on the puzzle more quickly than the cookie eaters. The conclusion was that the radish eaters had used up their willpower trying not to eat the cookies.
Daniel Engber, writing in Slate, notes that the study has been cited more than 3,000 times, and that in the years after it appeared, its findings “have been borne out again and again in empirical studies. The effect has been recreated in hundreds of different ways, and the underlying concept has been verified via meta-analysis. It’s not some crazy new idea, wobbling on a pile of flimsy data; it’s a sturdy edifice of knowledge, built over many years from solid bricks.”
But, he says, it “could be completely bogus.”
A “massive effort” to recreate “the main effect underlying this work” using 2,000 subjects in two-dozen different labs on several continents found … nothing.
The study, due to be published next month in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “means an entire field of study — and significant portions of certain scientists’ careers — could be resting on a false premise.”
Engber laments that “If something this well-established could fall apart, then what’s next? That’s not just worrying. It’s terrifying.”
Actually, it’s science.
As Thomas Kuhn explained in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” this kind of event is typical in the course of scientific progress.
A “paradigm” takes hold in the scientific community based on early research, which subsequent studies appear to confirm, but which can later collapse as findings that don’t fit the paradigm start to accumulate. Kuhn found several such “paradigm shifts” in history.
The ego depletion findings also come as scientists are starting to realize that much, if not most, of what gets published is essentially bogus because it can’t be reproduced by subsequent studies.
“By some estimates,” notes an article in Quartz, “at least 51% — and as much as 89% — of published papers are based on studies and experiments showing results that cannot be reproduced.”
The Quartz article says one reason is a bias in scientific journals to produce “exciting studies that show strong results.”