Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ego-depletion, dishonesty and bad career decisions?

Check out this article, which talks about stress in terms of "ego-depletion", and what that does to both decision-making and the tendency to take short-cuts in general.

So first, let's talk about stress. I feel like stress became a popular term sometime in the '80s. I was just a kid then, but it was the days of spandex and step aerobics, shoulder pads and big hair. Everyone was working harder to be thinner, more powerful, more competitive.

Stress morphed into the grunge era and emerged looking like cigarette-smoking, burned-out depression in the early '90s.

By the time I was in "training", the culture of science valued stress above all else. Stress was a hallmark of potential success. If you were more stressed than the next guy, that meant you were working harder. Everyone respected the hardest worker. It didn't matter if you were working smart, or if your science was working at all. It mattered what kind of hours you put in; how much you complained; how tired you looked. Who saw you leaving in the early dawn after spending the night in the lab. It was almost as important to be seen exhibiting signs of stress as it was to complain about it afterwards, when you had gone home, slept a while, and showered.

But I think this article and the idea that we might make poor decisions under stress is worth considering seriously.

For example, are we being dishonest with ourselves when we rationalize why anyone should deserve to suffer in science careers? Are we rationalizing pain as "part of the training process"? As a "learning experience"? Are we telling ourselves we need to toughen ourselves and our students up, because we're too tired to realize that's a stupid way to think about a career that actually demands creativity and a fresh perspective?

Well, yes. I think so.

I also think the idea that stress and poor decision-making might lead to cheating is relevant to science. I think examples like Retraction Watch help document the extent to which not all scientists view it as a noble profession. Or maybe they just are too tired to resist the temptation to fudge the data and hope everyone else is too tired to notice it's a big fat lie.

Meanwhile, the honest people are headed for certain burnout. At the end of the day, is there any amount of hard work that can win out over the cheaters who never get caught? Or who are rationalizing why they should protect each other? How much ego-depletion does it take to fuel protectionist groupthink?