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Self-Control in Motivation to Confront Prejudice

Self-Control in Motivation to Confront Prejudice: Examining the Mechanisms of Ego-Depletion

Bettina J. Casad and Gualtiero Piccinini 

We are interested in the cognitive and physiological mechanisms underlying individuals’ decisions to confront or ignore personal encounters with prejudice. Many members of stigmatized groups (e.g., women, racial minorities) value speaking out against bias but are also aware of the negative social consequences for claiming sexist or racist treatment. These situations create psychological conflict for the individual to weigh the costs and benefits of confronting prejudice in intergroup contexts.

Our goal is to test the plausibility of two theoretical models of self-regulation, ego-depletion and a motivated process model, and offer an extension of the process model. We also take a novel approach by examining motivation to confront prejudice through the lens of self-regulation. That is, most research examines motivations to control prejudice among majority group members, but we investigate motivations to confront prejudice among minority group members.

Self-regulation is dependent on limited resources that can be diminished due to cognitive load, known as ego-depletion.  Research shows that participants who have undergone ego-depletion prior to taking implicit measures have deficits in regulating prejudice, struggling to ignore automatic responses. Since many studies of ego-depletion use indirect behavioral measures, it cannot be completely inferred that a depletion of cognitive resources is causing impaired self-regulation.

An alternative to the ego-depletion theory is the process model. This model proposes that ego-depletion is not the result of exhaustion of cognitive resources, but rather due to shifts in motivation. The process model states that after self-regulating, which is an act of inhibiting automatic responses, an individual is then motivated to avoid inhibition and move toward more rewarding behavior. Simultaneously, attention is shifted away from potential signals to elicit control to signals of satisfaction and pleasure. These two shifts in motivation act to weaken self-regulation between the original self-control task and subsequent tasks.

We agree with a process model approach; however, we propose two important additional steps towards a mechanistic understanding of self-control: control signal strength and characteristics of neural systems. The proposed study will test a multiple mediation model to test motivation, attention, control strength, and impulse strength as mediators of self-control in confronting sexism. The traditional sequential task paradigm to test for ego-depletion after self-control will be used. The manipulations include a 2 (threat, no threat) X 2 (motivation: harmony, true self) X 2 (attention: control cues, no cues) between subjects design. We will measure each variable in the study using self-report and neural or physiological measures. In a virtual get-to-know you paradigm a female will be paired with a virtual male partner who either makes a sexist or neutral comment about them becoming friends. Before the interaction participants will be primed with a harmony or self-expression motivation and will be given control instructions or no control instructions.

Through triagulating measures we will be able to test the mediators of the participants’ responses to confront or ignore prejudice, thus further contributing to the process model by advancing our understanding of the multiple mechanisms involved in self-regulation.