Self-control is often believed to operate as if it were a finite, domain-general resource. However, recent attempts to demonstrate this under transparent conditions have failed to yield positive results. In the current study, we monitor two groups of students (N1 = 8,867, N2 = 8,754) over separate 17-week intervals with 24-hour coverage, as they engage in voluntary learning and self-testing using an online program. We use daily behavior to assess whether time-of-day effects support domain-general theories of self-control. Additionally, we assess whether mental fatigue emerges within task during prolonged persistent effort. Results reveal within-task fatigue emerges within an hour on-task. However, there is a negligible effect on ability throughout the day. Additionally, time-of-day has no detrimental effect on motivation; rather there is a strong tendency to increase learning time at night. Results are consistent with theories indicating people lose motivation within a specific task, but at odds with theories that argue for a domain-general self-control resource.
Randles, D., Harlow, I., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). A pre-registered naturalistic observation of within domain mental fatigue and domain-general depletion of self-control. PLoS ONE, 12(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182980