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Depleted Resource or Restored Balance?

Posted May 18 2012 12:00am

On May 25th (Friday of Memorial Day weekend) I’m scheduled to give a presentation about the behavioral self-regulation model I’ve been discussing in this blog as an alternative to the ego-depletion model. It will be at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science that will be meeting this year in Chicago. For those of you who can be there, I look forward to discussing it personally with you. For the vast remainder, I’ll give you a preview here. The presentation is actually a poster session, which means I’ll be standing next to a display and talking about it with anyone who is interested, but this is how I would probably pitch it if I was presenting a paper rather than a more informal poster:

Over the past century, the concept of homeostasis, which refers to how a system regulates itself to maintain a stable internal condition, has been in and out of favor as the basis for a theory of motivation. The purpose of this presentation is to propose a theoretical model that explains the mechanism for problems of behavioral regulation such as emotional eating, gambling, shopping, and other impulse control disorders. These behaviors are generally considered problems of self-control failure.

The model I am proposing is based on the idea that homeostasis is a primary controlling force in motivation and behavioral regulation. It suggests that self-control “failure” is not a breakdown of control due to a depletion of willpower, but is rather a proactive, strategic attempt to regain a feeling of autonomous control. This model is derived from my clinical experience in treating patients with emotional eating, and it is empirically supported by research that has come primarily from the laboratory of Roy Baumeister at Florida State University. It differs significantly, however, from the interpretation that has been put forward by Baumeister and colleagues, and is now widely accepted as the model that explains self-control. It is variously referred to as the depletion model, strength model, or resource model of self-control.

Homeostasis is a term coined in 1929 by the American physiologist Walter Cannon to describe the feedback mechanism that biological systems employ to maintain a stable and balanced internal environment. This mechanism, which was first described by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard, is used in all biological systems  to regulate physiological processes such as temperature and blood pressure.

Currently, homeostasis is out of favor as an explanation for human motivation and has been for the past several decades. Its current status may date back to 1986, when the prominent social psychologist Bernard Weiner, in his book, An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, proposed a set of rules which he felt any theory of motivation must follow. His very first principle was that “a theory of motivation must be based on a concept other than homeostasis.” His reasoning was that “humans often strive to induce states of disequilibrium” such as horror movies or roller coasters. In other words, homeostasis requires the maintenance of balance and such behavior would disrupt that balance. Therefore, the fact that people often seek out such experiences is inconsistent with a theory of motivation that is based on homeostasis.

In stating this, Weiner makes the assumption that when people engage in such emotionally stimulating activity, they are starting out in a state of emotional neutrality and comfort. I believe this assumption is unwarranted. While it is true that horror movies and roller coasters would certainly disrupt a person’s otherwise peaceful and neutral internal emotional environment, there is no reason to assume that this was their internal condition before engaging in these activities. The excitement these experiences generate may be a way of compensating for a feeling of boredom or a desire to escape from routine. By temporarily going to the opposite extreme, one may actually be restoring balance rather than upsetting it.

In their Self-Determination Theory of motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan state that a primary motivational force is the basic psychological need for internal or autonomous control. When we perceive that there is too much external control over our behavior, our motivation to perform declines. If we accept that this is a basic psychological need, then we would be motivated to make up for it when it feels depleted, just as we do for any basic need. That would be done by temporarily overcompensating with an excessive degree of internal control.

How does this apply to understanding and improving self-control? According to the depletion model, self-control or willpower is like a muscle that has a limited capacity and gets depleted with use. This is supported by ample research evidence showing that each time people have to exercise self-restraint, their ability to do so gets worse. As the self-restraint “muscle” tires, we are more likely to lose self-control in our behavior.

However, if we apply our understanding of homeostasis to this process, what appears to be a depletion of strength may actually be a depletion of autonomy and control. The more you have to restrain an impulse to act, the less you feel a sense of independent control. To compensate for that there is an increased motivation to “act out” (as we clinicians like to say). There is a proactive need to give up and surrender to the impulse – not out of weakness, but out of a drive to regain autonomous control.

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