New Research Teaches Us How To Be Less Motivated By Our Id And More Motivated By Our Ego

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality explores the topic of ‘ego alignment’ and how this concept is able to predict levels of psychological well-being and self-control.

“It is clear that some people can control themselves better than others and these individual differences matter quite a bit,” says Michael Robinson, a psychologist at North Dakota State University and co-author of the new research. “The dominant model for understanding these individual differences has been that some people have more self-control ‘strength’ than others, but it is now clear that this is not a sufficient theory for personality-based self-control.”

To improve the theory, Robinson and his team proposed ‘ego-alignment’ as another way some people are able to practice better self-control than others. Ego-alignment, according to the researchers, describes the connection between an individual’s ability to know what they should do in certain situations versus actually performing the ‘correct’ action.

To test this, the researchers recruited a sample of undergraduate students to respond to a series of everyday life dilemmas (e.g., a friend has been reading one’s emails without permission). The researchers asked participants to indicate (1) how they would respond if they encountered these situations and (2) how people, not necessarily themselves, should respond in the described situations.

“It occurred to us that by using both ‘would do’ and ‘should do’ instructions, we could examine a very interesting question — the extent to which a given person would do what he or she thinks to be effective in a given situation,” says Robinson. “Individuals who have high levels of ego-alignment are likely to live better and less conflicted lives. By contrast, misaligned individuals are essentially working at cross purposes. They act in ways that they, themselves, know to be problematic. This is a more id-like mode of existence.”

They found that individuals who reported greater alignment between their ‘would do’ and ‘should do’ answers showed:

  • Higher levels of self-control
  • Were deemed to be more socially competent by their peers
  • And experienced higher levels of well-being in their daily lives

The researchers explain that ego-aligned individuals are better equipped to make decisions that may be unpleasant in the short-term but that have long-term benefits. Moreover, because of their focus on problem-solving, they are less likely to view difficult decisions as aversive.

“Ego-aligned individuals do not experience taking action as effortful nor would they approach behaviors as aversive,” says Robinson. “They would experience the relevant action and appreciate it for its ability to solve a problem.”

Interestingly, the authors found that extraverted individuals showed a slight advantage in terms of their ego-alignment due to their tendency to approach social interactions from an inclusive, coalition-building frame of mind.

However, the researchers highlight that everyone can benefit from approaching problem-solving from a more ego-aligned perspective, asking what one should do and what you would do before making important decisions to ensure alignment in your answers.

A full interview with Michael Robinson can be found here: Do you follow your id or ego? New research explores how to become more ego-effective

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