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Task duration and task order do not matter: no effect on self-control performance

Abstract

The strength model of self-control proposes that all acts of self-control are energized by one global limited resource that becomes temporarily depleted by a primary self-control task, leading to impaired self-control performance in secondary self-control tasks. However, failed replications have cast doubt on the existence of this so-called ego depletion effect. Here, we investigated between-task (i.e., variation in self-control tasks) and within-task variation (i.e., task duration) as possible explanations for the conflicting literature on ego depletion effects. In a high-powered experiment (N = 709 participants), we used two established self-control tasks (Stroop task, transcription task) to test how variations in the duration of primary and secondary self-control tasks (2, 4, 8, or 16 min per task) affect the occurrence of an ego depletion effect (i.e., impaired performance in the secondary task). In line with the ego depletion hypothesis, subjects perceived longer lasting secondary tasks as more self-control demanding. Contrary to the ego depletion hypothesis, however, performance did neither suffer from prior self-control exertion, nor as a function of task duration. If anything, performance tended to improve when the primary self-control task lasted longer. These effects did not differ between the two self-control tasks, suggesting that the observed null findings were independent of task type.

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Data availability statement

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Correspondence to Wanja Wolff.

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship or the publication of this article. The authors have full control of all primary data and agree to allow the journal to review their data if requested.

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This study has been approved by the local ethics committee. All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1975 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments. All persons gave their informed consent prior to their inclusion in the study.

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Wolff, W., Sieber, V., Bieleke, M. et al. Task duration and task order do not matter: no effect on self-control performance. Psychological Research 85, 397–407 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01230-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01230-1