According to Daniel Engber
An influential psychological theory, borne out in hundreds of experiments, may have just been debunked. How can so many scientists have been so wrong?
In 2011, Baumeister and John Tierney of the New York Times published a science-cum-self-help book based around this research. Their best-seller, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, advised readers on how the science of ego depletion could be put to use. A glass of lemonade that’s been sweetened with real sugar, they said, could help replenish someone’s inner store of self-control. And if willpower works like a muscle, then regular exercise could boost its strength. You could literally build character, Baumeister said in an interview with the Templeton Foundation, a religiously inclined science-funding organization that has given him about $1 million in grants. By that point, he told the Atlantic, the effects that he’d first begun to study in the late 1990s were established fact: “They’ve been replicated and extended in many different laboratories, so I am confident they are real,” he said.
But that story is about to change. A paper now in press, and due to publish next month in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, describes a massive effort to reproduce the main effect that underlies this work. Comprising more than 2,000 subjects tested at two-dozen different labs on several continents, the study found exactly nothing. A zero-effect for ego depletion: No sign that the human will works as it’s been described, or that these hundreds of studies amount to very much at all.