In 2007, Roy Baumeister, a pioneer in the field, and his colleagues reported that the physiological correlate of ego-depletion is low glucose. Self-control leads the brain to metabolise more glucose, so the theory goes, and when glucose gets too low, we're left with less willpower.
The breakthrough 2007 study showed that ego-depleted participants had low blood glucose levels, but those who subsequently consumed a glucose drink were able to sustain their self-control on a second task. In the intervening years the finding has been replicated and the glucose-willpower link has come to be stated as fact.
"No glucose, no willpower," wrote Baumeister and his journalist co-author John Tierney in their best-selling popular psychology book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength (Allen Lane, 2012). The claim was also endorsed in a guide to willpower published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year. "Maintaining steady blood-glucose levels, such as by eating regular healthy meals and snacks, may help prevent the effects of willpower depletion," the report claims.
But now two studies have come along at once (following another published earlier in the year) that together cast doubt on the idea that depleted willpower is caused by a lack of glucose availability in the brain. In the first, Matthew Sanders and his colleagues in the US report what they call the "Gargle effect". They had dozens of students look through a stats book and cross out just the Es, a tiresome task designed to tax their self-control levels. Next, they completed the famous Stroop task - naming the ink colour of words while ignoring their meaning. Crucially, half the participants completed the Stroop challenge while gargling sugary lemonade, the others while gargling lemonade sweetened artificially with Splenda. The participants who gargled, but did not swallow, the sugary (i.e. glucose-containing) lemonade performed much better on the Stroop task.
The participants in the glucose condition didn't consume the glucose and even if they had, there was no time for it to be metabolised. So this effect can't be about restoring low glucose levels. Rather, Sanders' team think glucose binds to receptors in the mouth, which has the effect of activating brain regions involved in reward and self-control - the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum.
The other study that's just come out was conducted by Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis based in Australia and the UK. Their approach was similar to Sanders' except that participants gargled and spat out a glucose or artificially sweetened solution prior to performing a second taxing task, rather than during. Also, this research involved a series of 5 experiments involving many different ways of testing people's self-control, including: resisting delicious cookies; reading boring text in an expressive style; unsolvable puzzles; and squeezing hand-grips. But the take-home finding was the same - participants who gargled, but did not swallow, a glucose drink performed better on a subsequent test of their willpower; participants who gargled an artificially sweetened drink did not. So again, willpower was restored without topping up glucose levels. Moreover, the benefit of gargling glucose was displayed only by participants who'd had their self-control taxed in an initial task. It made no difference to participants who were already in an untaxed state.
Hagger and Chatzisarantis agree with the interpretation of the Sanders' group, except they make a distinction. The effect of glucose binding to receptors in the mouth could either stimulate activity in brain regions like the anterior cingulate that tend to show fatigue after a taxing task. Or they say that glucose in the mouth could trigger reward-related activity that prompts participants to interpret a task as more rewarding, thus boosting their motivation. The explanations are complementary and need not be mutually exclusive.
The key point is the new results suggest depleted willpower is about motivation and the allocation of glucose resources, not about a lack of glucose. These findings don't prove that consuming glucose has no benefit for restoring willpower, but they suggest strongly that it's not the principle mechanism. It's notable that the new findings complement previous research in the sports science literature showing that gargling (without ingesting) glucose can boost cycling performance.
"While our findings are consistent with the predictions of the resource-depletion account, they also contribute to an increasing literature that glucose may not be a candidate physiological analog for self-control resources," write Hagger and Chatzisarantis. "Instead ego-depletion may be due to problems of self-control resource allocation rather than availability." An important next step is to conduct brain-imaging and related studies to observe the physiological effects of gargling glucose on the brain, and on motivational beliefs. There are also tantalising applications from the new research - for example, could the gargle effect (perhaps in the form of glucose-infused chewing gum) be used as a willpower aid for dieters and people trying to give up smoking?
Hagger, M., and Chatzisarantis, N. (2012). The Sweet Taste of Success: The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167212459912
Sanders, M., Shirk, S., Burgin, C., and Martin, L. (2012). The Gargle Effect: Rinsing the Mouth With Glucose Enhances Self-Control. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612450034
From The Psychologist: Roy F. Baumeister outlines intriguing and important research into willpower and ego depletion.
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.