Much has been made in recent years of research indicating that willpower is an exhaustible resource. This research suggests that if we exercise self control for a few hours to resist Facebook and do our work, for example, we will have a hard time resisting that oh-really-I-shouldn’t brownie sundae. There’s a whole book based on this research: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is by one of the leaders in this research, Roy Baumeister. (With science writer John Tierney, because believe me, not all psychologists can write.)
But here’s an interesting article in an open source journal pointing out how research on willpower has mostly been done on youngsters.
Citing a meta-analysis of 83 studies, the authors say:
…only eleven recruited participants from the general population, compared with 187 samples drawn from student populations. From those that reported participant age, it is clear that the student samples were, unsurprisingly, significantly younger (k = 39; M age = 21.37, SD = 2.80) than those from the general population (k = 10; M age = 33.94, SD = 7.65) (t = 5.10, p<.01). This reliance on undergraduate samples is undoubtedly a feature of much research in psychology . However, in the domain of self-control and mental regulation it raises a potential problem given that neurological maturity for the frontal brain regions that underpin these faculties occurs later  than the mean age of the subjects used in the majority of ego-depletion research.
The researchers did their own small study with 87 volunteers, roughly half in the 18 to 25 age group and the others in the 40 to 65 age group. And what they found is “ego depletion” (also called “self-regulation depletion,” which makes more sense to me) was more marked in the younger set. The researchers theorize this is because of neurological maturity. Maybe so, or maybe it has to do with learning the benefits of willpower over time. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.
Granted, this is an itty bitty study, but it illuminates a big problem. The fact that so much psychological research is done on undergraduate students surely must skew what we “know” about human behavior.
As a midlife undergraduate, I was annoyed that my developmental psychology textbook jumped from youth to old age with only the barest nod to midlife, as if nothing could possibly happen in those years.
If youth is the Wonder Years and old age is the Golden Years, midlife was treated as the Nothing Years. And yet, they’re not. After all, most of the people behind most of the really important things that happen in the the world are at midlife.
Consider, for example, the unpleasant case of Diederik Stapel, a prominent social psychologist who recently admitted to faking scientific studies. Lots of them. Stapel was born in 1966, putting him dead center in the Nothing Years.
Granted, some of Stapel’s phony research may have been done when he was still a young liar, but much of it occurred during the peak of his lying career. And this makes me think about the pressures of midlife to achieve, the agony of upward comparison when you are mid career and reviewing your accomplishments, and the ticking clock of life telling you that it’s now or never. So while a 25 year old might fake data in order to make a splash, might someone older fake data out of, say, fear of mortality?
Think about corrupt Wall Street moguls. About politicians who make stupid personal decisions. About masterminds of terrorism. These aren’t kids. They’re adults whose decision making must be very different now than it was when they were in their formative years.
Finding research participants of various ages can be difficult. I understand this. Undergraduates are right there, and they usually are rewarded with some sort of credit for participating. There is little impetus for older people to participate in research.
But if you’re a member of the Nothing Years, think about yourself at 20 years old. Are your needs and motivations the same? Sure, some things don’t change. But a lot does, and until we understand the Nothing Years, we know very little about human behavior.
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