The Moral Muscle

The ancient Greeks used to compare moral philosophy to going to the gym: to become a virtuous person, you have to practice over and over, like a wrestler, to strengthen your 'moral muscles'. The same metaphor is used by the psychologist Roy Baumeister, whose excellent talk at the recent conference on moral sciences you can see here.
My favourite bit in the talk:

I think in part I got invited here, is I have a history of doing research on self-regulation and self-control. The essence of self-regulation is to override one response so that you can do something else —usually something that's more desirable, better either in the long run, or better for the group.

That is why we've called self-control the moral muscle. I'm going to unpack that and comment on both parts. It's moral: self-control is moral in the sense that it enables you to do these morally good things, sometimes detrimental to self-interest. So if you get lists of morals, whether it's the Seven Deadly Sins or the Ten Commandments or a list of virtues and so on, they're mostly about self-control. And you can really see self-control as central to them, so there are the Seven Deadly Sins of gluttony, wrath, and greed and the rest. They're mostly self-control failures. Likewise, the virtues are exemplary patterns of self-control. So that's the moral part of the ‘moral muscle’, it's a capacity to enable us to do these moral actions, which are good for the group, even though overcoming this short-term self-interest.

The muscle part, that's kind of emerged from our lab work, independent of any moral aspect. There seems to be a limited capacity to exert self-control that gets used up. It's like a muscle, it gets tired. As we found in many studies, after people will do some kind of self-control task, then they go to a different context with completely different self-control demands, they do worse on it – as if they used a muscle and it got tired there.

So it's a limited resource that gets exhausted. The muscle, there are other aspects of the muscle analogy. If you exercise self-control regularly, you get stronger. I wouldnt want people to say, well, if self-control and morality's a limited capacity, I'm never going to do anything to exert self-control because I don't want to waste it. No, au contraire, you should exert it regularly; it will make you stronger and give you greater capacity to do things.

And certainly then we find that when people have exerted this muscle and it's tired, so to speak, or when they've depleted, you know, ego depletion's a term for it, depleted their resources, then behavior drifts toward being less moral. So we found that people are perhaps more gratuitously aggressive towards somebody else after they've exerted self-control and used up some of their “moral muscle” resources.

In a study on cheating and stealing we published a couple of years ago, people had to type up an essay about what they had done recently, either not using words with the letter 'a' or not using words containing the letter, 'x.' There are a lot more words contain an 'a' than 'x’, so the former requires much more self-control and overriding. And so when you're trying to make up a sentence and you keep reaching the point, oh look, there's an 'a' in that word and you have to override it, and so it uses self-control to keep overriding one response and coming up with another, that depletes people's resources. So they were more depleted in the “A” than in the “X” condition.

Afterwards, then they went to another room, supposedly another experiment where they're taking an arithmetic test and they're being paid for the number of ones they get right. They either scored it themselves, or the experimenter scored it for them. Of the four conditions (depleted or not, and self-scored or experimenter scored) all got about the same number right —except for the depleted people who scored their own tests, they somehow claimed to get a whole lot more right. It was not plausible they were actually getting smarter by virtue of having typed while not using words with the letter 'a' in them, because when the experimenter scored them, he couldn't find any difference. Got about the same number right. But when nobody was checking and their answer sheet was shredded and they said, you know, I got six correct. Then suddenly they got a whole lot more correct. So that suggests increase in lying and cheating, and effectively stealing money from the experiment.

There are some other findings, too, depleted people are more likely to engage in sexual misbehavior, and so on. So moral behavior does seem to go down when people have depleted their moral muscle capacity. More recently, we're working with Marc Hauser on seeing if depletion changes, how people make moral judgments of others, that's proving a little bit more slippery. But again, this kind of process is geared toward regulating your behavior more than your thinking about others. So it's not surprising that it shows up right there.

A couple of other things we've found, relevant here. Choice seems to deplete the same muscle as self-control, it's the same resource. So we have people make a lot of choices about which of these two products would you buy and so on, afterwards then their self-control is damaged, too, so making choices uses up the resource needed for self-control. That resource seems to be tied into some physiological processes. We found changes with the glucose levels in the bloodstream, and so something about doing these advanced kinds of self-control acts uses up this resource and depleted self-control in the bloodstream.

If you give people a drink, after manipulation we give them lemonade mixed with sugar or with Splenda, and Splenda they still act bad, but they got sugar in there, it gives a quick dose of glucose to the bloodstream and suddenly their behavior is more self-controlled; in some cases more moral, making more rational decisions and so forth. And conversely, too, if they're depleted from self-control, then their choice process is changed to be more shallow and so forth.

In terms of self-regulation plus choice, I mean, you start now to think that this same capacity is used, the same resource used for choosing and for self-control, and in maybe a couple of other things as well. There are some data on initiative. So instead of talking about it in terms of regulatory depletion, we're trying to come up with a bigger term, and that's how I got to talking about free will.