We all spend some time pretending to be something we’re not. We pretend we’re feeling happy when we’re not, we maintain a façade of polite interest when we’re bored by our grandfathers story of finding the lost tooth…recounted with minute detail…for the fifteenth time. We say no to the slice of chocolate cake as we imagine it connecting with our mouth, dancing over our taste buds, and settling contentedly in our stomach.
But what if you’re an undercover cop trying to bust a crime ring? What if you’re a teen trying to keep up with the popular girls? What if you’re an alien living amongst humans? I’d imagine if you’re the creator of these little challenges you’d want to know what all that pretending could mean for your character…
Enter psychology – stage left.
Psychology has found that pretending to be something we’re not can have an impact on our behaviour, and promptly gave it a label (as psychology is wont to do) – ego depletion. Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources, and these resources can be used up. It’s kinda like a muscle that you’ve exercised, and after a few push ups, it gets tired. And just like those biceps, once you’ve flexed it a few-times, self-control is depleted. Considering self-control and willpower plays a valuable role in our functioning, both personally and interpersonally, then it’s a valuable construct to understand if your character is having to exercise it.
Let me give you some examples:
- One of the earliest studies found that people who initially resisted the temptation of chocolates (I didn’t actually know that was possible!) were subsequently less able to persist on a difficult and frustrating puzzle task (to be honest, I don’t know how they got this one past ethics – these poor people had to say no to chocolate and then do an annoying puzzle!).
- Another study showed that when people gave a speech that included beliefs contrary to their own, they also gave up quicker when completing a difficult puzzle.
- If your character is a chronic dieter – meaning they have to work on resisting cravings and limiting calories and are flexing their self-control muscle on a regular basis, then we see a similar tendency. Researchers put dieters alongside non-dieters and asked them to supress their emotional response while watching a movie. Afterwards, both groups of participants were required to consume some ice-cream under the guise of a taste-test (and the cruelty continues…). Results showed that dieters consumed more ice-cream than non-dieters.
- Research found that ego depletion can impact physical tasks as well as cognitive ones. On study found competitive athletes’ mental determination was hindered after completing a difficult cognitive task far more than after completing an easy task (mental note, if I ever consider running a marathon, don’t try to figure out why my brain likes to do most of its plotting at 3am…).
- The last I think we can all relate to – research that suggests that advertising wears us down. In a consumer driven world we are constantly faced with choices of price and quality. Too many choices can make us feel overwhelmed, fatigued and frustrated, and when in this state people tend to buy either the highest priced product (I assume they feel this is the best quality product) or the cheapest (the one that represents the least monetary risk).
Can you see how this could be relevant for your character? Pretending to be someone we’re not and having to suppress our natural reactions and inclinations depletes our cognitive resources. If we have to make a difficult decision, or even a quick decision, those same resources that power our problem-solving, our judgement, and our choice selection, have been diminished.
It means your character may make a snap decision, or a fool-hardy one they wouldn’t normally make. Just like a dieter would have been able to maintain their willpower when it came to the ice-cream under different circumstances – one that was more aligned with their values and priorities (although if it was salted caramel and macadamia, then all bets are off).
I’m curious if you have a character who’s in this situation? Are they maintaining a façade of some sort? Are they living a lie? And if so, how does the strain of the lying and pretending impact their behaviour, maybe compromise their choices? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,