Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Acute Cardiovascular Exercise Counteracts the Effect of Ego-Depletion on Attention: How Ego-Depletion Increases Boredom and Compromises Directed Attention

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Acute Cardiovascular Exercise Counteracts the Effect of Ego-Depletion on Attention: How Ego-Depletion Increases Boredom and Compromises Directed Attention

Article excerpt

Abstract

Prior research implicates ego-depletion in directed-attention failure, but provides few explanations for the effect. I theorize that ego-depletion weakens ones ability to maintain cognitive-arousal in non-stimulating situations, which increases proneness to boredom. In one study, 90 participants first either underwent ego-depletion (white-bear thought-suppression) or a non-depleting control activity (solved arithmetic problems). They then had their arousal manipulated by either performing an arousal-bolstering physical exercise or waited sitting for an equivalent amount of time in a quite room to facilitate low arousal. All participants then completed the continuous performance task (CPT) as a measure of directed-attention. Attention was measured in terms of accuracy (number of errors) on the CPT. Results revealed a moderated-mediation such that without an arousal-inducing exercise, ego-depleted participants experienced greater boredom and performed worse on the CPT. However, with an arousal-inducing exercise, the effect of ego-depletion on CPT performance disappeared and the effect on boredom was reversed.

Keywords: arousal, attention, boredom, ego-depletion, exercise, and self-control

1. Introduction

A culmination of research from the past 15 years supports the theory that self-control behaves as a limited mental resource. When people exert self-control in one instance, their subsequent attempts to use self-control are impaired, even on otherwise unrelated tasks (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). This phenomenon is called ego-depletion and one is described as being ego-depleted when their state self-regulatory ability/motivation has been compromised by a recent exertion of willpower. Numerous studies report links between ego-depletion and subsequent attention failure (e.g., Freeman & Muraven, 2010; Gailliot et al., 2007; Inzlicht, McKay, & Aronson, 2006; Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010; Lykins, 2009; Webb & Sheeran, 2003). In fact, the ego-depleting effects of sustaining attention are so widely acknowledged and accepted, that focusing attention is occasionally used as a method for inducing a state of ego-depletion (e.g., Galliot et al., 2007). Despite this research history, few explanations for ego-depletion's effect on attention have been offered.

One possible exception is a recent theory (Kaplan & Berman, 2010) that argues attention and self-control draw from the same limited cognitive resource. Unfortunately, other recent research has challenged the limited resource explanation as the sole mechanism for ego-depletion in all cases (Inzlicht, Schmeichel, & Macrae, 2014; Job et al., 2010). For example, numerous techniques, such as improving affect (Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007), implementation intentions (Webb & Sheeran, 2003), and priming self-control (Martijn, Alberts, Merckelbach, Havermans, Huijts, & De Vries, 2007) can counteract ego-depletion but do not involve replenishing a resource. Although this does not necessarily mean that self-control and attention do not tap a common resource that is ultimately limited, it does suggest that exhausting this resource is not always how ego-depletion might undermine attention. In other words, Kaplan and Berman (2010) are likely ultimately correct; however, there seem to be other mechanisms also at work between ego-depletion and attention. Thus, it is important to investigate alternative explanations.

Of course, some sustained attention seems not to require self-control nor be vulnerable to ego-depletion. For example, even after a long day of ego-depleting work, most people find it easy to attend to their favorite HBO or Netflix series for hours at a time. In fact, breaking attention from such stimuli is often characterized as an act of self-control (LaRose, Lin, & Eastin, 2003). Thus, self-control (and by extension, ego-depletion) seems to be important for sustaining attention in non-stimulating or non-interesting activities only. …

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