There’s no denying Sigmund Freud’s significant impact on the field of psychology. While some of his better known and more controversial theories have fallen out of favor since his death in 1939, much of his work has been hugely influential to modern psychology. One Freudian concept – that of the ego – inspired the modern psychological notion of ego depletion.
Ego depletion claims that there are three constantly interacting aspects to our personality. The first is the id, which encompasses our most primal urges and is driven by the search for pleasure. Next is the superego, which is concerned with morality and the sense of right and wrong taught to us by our families and society. Finally, there is the ego, which is tasked with mediating the conflicting interests of the id and the superego, so that the id can be satisfied without overstepping the moral boundaries of the superego.1
According to Freud’s theory of personality, the ego is constantly working to keep the id in check. Like any other cognitive task, the ego’s constant efforts to satisfy both the id and the superego requires mental energy, which is limited. Self-control can be thought of like a muscle; when it is well rested, it is strong, however, as it is worked, it becomes fatigued and needs to be rested again. Just like how a muscle becomes less effective as it is worked, the ego’s ability to exert self-control depletes and requires rest before it can work again.2
When we experience ego depletion, we do not have the mental energy to make effortful decisions or keep ourselves from engaging in temptations. As a result, we may make poor choices and lose productivity.