Ego Depletion vs. Orthopraxy

A common trope among Mormons is the idea that when someone leaves the Church, they do so because they were offended or they had a desire to sin. If you ask why people leave the Church, these two answers are incredibly likely to be among the first class members cite. Rather than a deliberate smear campaign against those who have left the faith, it seems that this is a case of correlation vs. causation fallacy, the idea that when two things appear at the same time, one was the cause of the other, when in reality there are more options when two things appear in conjunction:

  • A caused B.
  • B caused A.
  • A and B were both caused by C.
  • A and B are unrelated and do not share a common cause.

Let’s take a closer look at both of these correlatives: people who’ve left the Church being “offended,” and people who’ve left no longer following the “rules” of being Mormon.

The Offense Paradigm

This trope states that those who have left the Church truly believe in the Church, but were personally offended by someone within the Church. This goes hand in hand with the idea that those people seek to be offended (rather than the flip side of this idea that some people pride themselves on giving offense or being “straight talkers”).

I was recently reading the book You Are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney. It’s the follow up to his popular book You Are Not So Smart. In both books, he talks about how our brains work for our survival but in ways that deceive us and are not an accurate reflection of reality. In one chapter, he discusses Ego Depletion. From Wikipedia:

Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion.

A study was described in the book in which a group of subjects was taken into a room for a social mixer. After the social interaction, each participant was asked to write the names of 3 people they wanted to get to know better. The researchers then tossed these names out without even looking at them. They randomly told half the subjects that everyone had considered them an interesting person they wanted to know better. They told the other half of the subjects that nobody had thought them interesting enough to ask to get to know them better. Ouch! After receiving this information, either that they were popular or pariahs, they were given a task of taste-testing some cookies. Which group do you think ate more cookies?

Those who felt socially rejected experienced ego depletion, a sense that they weren’t as good as they thought, scarfed down extra cookies. This feeling of rejection manifested itself in a desire for self-soothing, but also in a re-assessment of the benefits of self-control. Those who felt puffed up by the supposed attention they were given from the social activity had more self-control because they had already received a boost in good feelings from the false feedback given by the researchers. They weren’t feeling deflated, so the cookies didn’t have the same pull for them.

What things at Church cause people to have a sense of being deflated? Like every social situation, whenever we feel rejected, we experience this feeling. It could be expressing an unpopular opinion, hearing negative comments about people we love, seeing someone give our apparel the side-eye, or feeling like our contributions are undervalued or unwanted. Sometimes ward boundary changes can trigger this as a person feels excluded from the existing social cliques. Things happening in one’s personal life can also trigger ego depletion: marital problems, caring for aging parents, loss of a loved one, health problems, or economic troubles.

The cookie experiment is particularly on point because scientists have discovered that the chemical missing when you experience ego depletion is glucose! [1]

Wanting to Sin

We see that feeling personal rejection (or offense) can lead to lower self-control in the cookie experiment, but when it comes to cultures with norms and rules, rejection also directly attacks a person’s desire to conform or make personal sacrifices. I was struck when in her post-excommunication interview, Kate Kelly was wearing a sleeveless top. It was a warm day, and why wouldn’t she? It made me realize that there was no reason she wouldn’t wear a sleeveless top. Why follow the rules of a society that has banished you?

When you’ve been rejected by society it’s as if somewhere deep inside you ask yourself, “Why keep regulating my behavior if no one cares what I do?” (from the book)

In other words, we let go of the rules that we feel are being imposed on us by those who (socially) reject us. Unlike Job, most people don’t stick with the program when there are no rewards for their forbearance. And what kinds of behaviors does Mormonism require of us? There are various categories of norms and rules we follow:

  • Things we have to exert effort to do.
  • Things we have to exert effort to avoid doing.
  • Things we naturally do.
  • Things we naturally avoid doing.

The first ones to go are going to be the ones that require effort to do or to avoid doing. That might differ from person to person depending on their job, their social circle and their other life circumstances. If something starts to feel like a sacrifice, that’s an indication that our ego-depleted self is starting to reconsider the value of that thing. If no rewards come, either socially or otherwise, from doing or avoiding something that requires exertion, we are eventually going to quit doing that thing. And of course, our ego depletion can be triggered by things both inside and outside of our church experience. From the book:

Once you’ve completed a task requiring significant self-control, your motivation and attention are manipulated by internal forces to seek rewards for a while.

What if those rewards don’t happen? If we have the patience of Job, we can meet with our feckless friends and ignore their bad advice and power through their lackluster sympathy, or more likely, we will give up on the sacrifice that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Likewise, if we do something the group wants us to do, and nobody cares, why are we doing it? Is it worth it?

This reminded me of the sad words to the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby:

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Ultimately, Church is a community of disciples, a loose group of people trying to support each other in living a Christian life. Paul describes the body of Christ as comprising different members, each of which performs a unique function, and none of which can claim another is not needed. However, we do often as a community make others feel unneeded or like outsiders in order to preserve group norms, to punish freeloaders, to weed out those we deem to weaken the herd. We politely allow people to say things that ostracize others. We forget that we are all on the edge of ego depletion, prone to feeling the effects of social rejection. The very act of judging someone for their imperfect efforts is what can create an enemy out of a friend.



[1] Which immediately makes me wonder if fasting causes people to sin (or cut corners in other ways) which would be really interesting. I mean, it does cause grumpiness which is a type of sin I suppose.



  1. This post is a fantastic resource about why people actually leave the Church and how the leadership doesn’t understand it:

  2. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Grumpiness is not a sin, but expecting other people to be stupidly happy all the time (or at least projecting the appearance thereof), regardless of the circumstances of their lives, is a sin for which most American Mormons should spend a few thousand years in purgatory.

  3. Makes sense to me. Translating from my own theory which is that “offense” and “sin” are tied up in the stories we choose to tell, after the fact. Not a cause-and-effect.

    I guess that almost everyone–meaning all women, and all but a handful of men (the handful coming from the class of men who ride the fast track leadership wave all the way to the top)–has experiences that can be told as offense if they choose to do so. There’s always material for that story. Some who leave choose to tell those stories. Many who stay choose not to tell those stories or even pretend to themselves that they didn’t happen or weren’t really offensive.

    I guess that most people who leave and engage in Mormon-speak “sin” would not call it sin. Whatever the cause-and-effect sequence–whether it starts with a desire to do those things, or a determination that those things are not sin, or somewhere else altogether–the resulting state is not one of sinning according to that individual’s story. I know people in and out of the Church who would acknowledge they are sinning (by their understanding). When they acknowledge, it is usually with a tone of ‘and something should change.’ In or out doesn’t have much impact on the story. It does have an impact on what comes next, from a process point of view at least. I know people in and out of the Church who do things Church folk might call sinning, but they don’t–don’t consider it a sin at all. In or out does have some impact on the what is on the list. But most of all in or out has an impact on shame and masking, and therefore on the stories we tell.

  4. Except….the Ego Depletion theory has been debunked as bad science. I have personally taught on ego depletion (I’m a mental health therapist) and now cringe over it.

  5. Jennifer: Thanks for sharing the article–very interesting! From the article:

    “It could be that willpower is a finite resource, but one that we expend according to our motivations. After all, that’s how money works: A person’s buying habits might encompass lots of different factors, including how much cash she’s holding and how she feels about her finances. But given these larger questions about the nature of willpower as well as the meta-analysis debate, the whole body of research began to seem suspicious.”

    “Let’s say it’s true the tasks were wrong, and that ego depletion, as it’s been described, is a real thing. If that’s the case, then the study clearly shows that the effect is not as sturdy as it seemed.”

    I guess I’ll scrap my recipe idea for radish cookies.

  6. Enjoyed both this post and reading about why people actually leave and what leaders believe are the reasons.
    To continue the conversation, excluding change to actual doctrine, which is outside my power, how do we keep people in the Church?
    Is more accurate information on difficult church history enough or do these events require apologies? Can a way forward for our LGBTQ members be found or is our doctrine such that many will not feel they wish to believe it or follow its restrictions? Much in my lifetime has changed with regard to our teachings regarding women, but what else can be changed so that young and old women have not only a voice, but a vote?
    Are young people and new converts being adequately instructed and helped to gain powerful spiritual witnesses that keep them attached to church during the difficult times that strip illusions from their eyes and refine their understanding of the limits on some of the promises leaders make? Are we prepared to stress in our lessons and talks that we do not yet have all the answers, that many conditions of mortality remain outside our knowledge?
    Can we change many parts of the culture of the Church by stressing other parts of the doctrine, such as our attempt to give more weight to the doctrine of grace over works?

  7. People are complex and members are complex so its hard to generalize the problem or the solution IMO. An individual member in Mesa or Olympia may have a very different take on this than a member in Krakow or Manila.

    I do think all people in general have a desire to sin and many people in general are offended, some more than others. Our doctrinal/gospel schema is often a fine way to look at life in my personal experience. But some folks don’t believe in sin or have a different definition of that.

    A lot of psychological takes don’t hold up to empirical evidence. Psychoanalytic takes can be useful and are fun, but even the idea of Ego and Id is not empirical. On the niche topic of disaffiliated members, I’m not even sure there are many (or any) accurate scientific surveys. Without that as a base, were just stuck with individual subjectivity.

  8. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for taking it in a different, but predictable direction that I imagined after reading the first paragraph.

    It’s clear we need to repent daily. It’s a constant process. Sin is missing the mark. The mark is Christ. Repentance is reaquiring that sight, that focus on Christ. Reaiming our lives at Christ. Getting back on the path to following him. Probably, all of us stray from that path daily, and repentance at it’s heart involves turning back on that path of discipleship.

    A lot of your thoughts about the fallout that comes from the friction of serving in a community was actually given in a parable found in D&C 101:42-53. Really alot of the verses before and after that can provide insight as well.

  9. *different, not predictable direction…

    I find the connection of the cookie ego study to church service and “behavior control” interesting and inevitable.

    It’s really why we each need to have that personal conversion and connection with Christ and his prophets that comes from the scriptures, self-motivated ministering service, etc.

  10. For me the ‘common trope’ is that members ostracize others to keep the community norms. That has not been my experience at all. I have lived in many wards, and have certainly not seen any “deliberate smear campaign” blaming offenses or sin for leaving. Those have indeed been used many times as reasons by those who leave — to deny that is just not being honest — but no one holds that against them. I am not suggesting members are perfect in loving each other. We are not. But in my experience the reasons for leaving are as varied as the individuals who leave, and (most) members accept people for who they are and where they are in their spirituality. I think (most) members really do “love the smell of cigarettes at church”, and are quite uninterested in why people leave, but more interested in supporting them so they can return because we miss them.

  11. Brother Sky says:

    Nice, thought-provoking post. I respect DD’s point of view and their experience. To RL’s point, I think all of us tend to retreat towards the anecdotal when we consider questions like the ones the OP raised. I’m friends with more than a few folks who have left and, at least in my area, they felt they were”dropped” as friends by most, if not all, of the people in our ward as soon as word got out that they were no longer members. Communities CAN function on love, mutuality and the bearing of each others’ burdens, of course, but it’s human nature, IMHO, to tend more towards exclusion than inclusion, which means that as much as communities should be about what Paul says, they’re more often, in my experience, about boundary patrolling and investing a substantial amount of energy making sure that people are “worthy” (in whatever context) to be a member of the community. Of course, YMMV, as some commenters have pointed out. The tragic part of policing boundaries and judging others, of course, is that it leads to people being cut off from one another rather than being united. To take it full circle, George Martin, when asked about the lines in Eleanor Rigby that go “all the lonely people/where do they all come from” said it was the Beatles talking about their own audience. Hopefully, whatever our individual experiences with folks who leave or struggle, we can avoid contributing to the loneliness that the Beatles observed by not shaming or dismissing others by clinging to an outdated and disproven narrative.

  12. LCN: That’s an interesting comment. What makes something a worthwhile sacrifice vs. an undue burden placed on us by the community? My post was intended to show that one thing is whether we feel accepted vs. rejected by the community, but I also agree with you that it has to do with one’s personal conversion, the hidden values and beliefs that are below the surface, that we make up stories to explain to ourselves. I noticed this in my parents’ conversion narrative. When they first met with the missionaries, they felt the missionaries and the Church were narrow-minded in prohibiting drinking Pepsi and they quit taking the lessons. Later they were convinced that the Word of Wisdom was from God (including, one supposes, the Pepsi prohibition they were told by the missionaries). What changed? That mystery of personal conversion.

  13. I would be surprised if someone didn’t have a desire to sin. So if you don’t know the offense that caused someone to leave, it’s easy to chalk it up to a desire to sin.
    One thing that somewhat frustrates me with the Gospel is the fact that testimonies apparently need maintenance. That’s crazy right? If you’ve had the experience of the Holy Ghost confirming to you that The Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a Prophet and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is God’s organization on the Earth; that knowledge should be permanently seared into your mind more than anything else. Nothing could have greater importance. But testimonies apparently need maintenance, and I don’t like that.
    I remember one story a Ward Mission Leader told me, about an inactive member. She was the ward activities chair and had come up with an elaborate activity. In ward council the Bishop went around and had every council member vote if they thought the activity was a good idea or not. All council members voted against doing the activity. At the end of the meeting she left and didn’t have anything to do with the church after that. Now you can reasonably see why she got upset, but in comparison to revealed knowledge about exaltation, that’s extremely minor!
    So for me, the reason why people leave is that they think that their testimony/conversion is rock solid, and then they don’t maintain it; and then a mole hill happens and they make a mountain out of it. Or they were never converted in the first place.

  14. I think the offense/sin reasoning is so popular because those are external things that another member can observe. They don’t see all the internal struggle because it happens in private. They just see the symptoms of that struggle. Church practices and culture can chafe particularly strongly when you’re questioning the beliefs that underpin them. And it’s easy to feel more irritable in general when church is a place that causes you internal pain, even if the pain is all caused by dissonance and not anybody’s actual actions. So yeah, a person who’s struggling with faith and/or the church will probably have more conflicts with other members and probably react more strongly when those conflicts arise. As for sin, you touched on it in the post — if you no longer believe a difficult thing is actually worthwhile or necessary, it’s pretty hard to keep doing it.

    So yes, for most people who’ve left, the first things family members see are offense (or speaking out against church practices/teachings) and “sin.” Especially the sins they see as particularly tempting, like word of wisdom violations.

    In Mormonism, a struggle of faith is driven particularly underground, IMO, because there’s such a strong culture/practice of asserting your faith. There are monthly meetings where you’re supposed to bear testimony publicly, and you’re also supposed to assert your certainty anytime you speak or teach at church. Things that lead to contention and discomfort are often misinterpreted as temptations from Satan that have no place at church. As long as that culture persists, you’re going to keep having this problem of people assuming other people leave for external reasons.

    Unless I misread, it seems this post is arguing that offense (ego depletion) leads to sin? When I would argue that both tend to stem from a different source. That internal dissonance seems to be caused by a variety of things, but once it starts it won’t stop unless you can somehow address the internal factors at work. Just being nicer/more welcoming/community-oriented isn’t going to fix much unless it goes deep.

  15. My ego gets depleted just brewing coffee each morning. Exactly what’s the problem w/ this health-giving beverage, my soul asks. No answer. If we can’t figure out something so blindingly simple, how can we ever understand gayness or Democrats or feminism? It all seems rather hopeless and I, BYU ‘85, have given up.

  16. No two Church members have identical beliefs. We are all a function of genetics, upbringing, education, Church inoculation, and environment. That leaves each of us with a unique set of beliefs. And we have to decide if our beliefs fall inside or outside the Latter-day Saint institution.

    If it’s outside, there is little point in obeying many of the commandments unique to Mormondom. Obviously you are not going to pay tithing. And since there seems to be no health-related problems with coffee, tea, and moderate amounts of alcohol, why not imbibe? (In fact, there may be health benefits.) So I guess they sin after they leave the Church. But sinning may not be the reason they left.

  17. Some of the things that are “sins” to Mormons aren’t empirically sinful, things like drinking coffee, swearing, not wearing garments. They are essentially victimless crimes.

    I had a friend once tell me that he had a BIL who left the church, became an atheist and then had an affair because he no longer believed in God. He kind of shrugged about it as if to say “obviously, without a belief in God everything’s on the table.” My take was that if belief in Mormonism specifically or God in general was the only thing keeping him from having an affair, he wasn’t a great guy to start with. That’s not a victimless crime. Cheating on your spouse is bad regardless your beliefs or lack thereof.

  18. Kristin Brown says:


  19. This is a really interesting framing, Angela. I think your list of experiences in church that can be ego-depleting is a good one:

    “It could be expressing an unpopular opinion, hearing negative comments about people we love, seeing someone give our apparel the side-eye, or feeling like our contributions are undervalued or unwanted. Sometimes ward boundary changes can trigger this as a person feels excluded from the existing social cliques.”

    What strikes me is that the more on the fringe you are to begin with, the more likely you are to have experiences like this. If you don’t believe in prophetic infallibility, or if you’re not a member of the GOP but you live in one of many US wards where this is considered wickedness, or if you have friends or relatives who are LGBT, or if you yourself are LGBT, you are much more likely to hear negative comments about people you love (or about you!), to find that your opinions are unpopular, or to find that your contributions aren’t wanted.

    Which I guess is just another way of saying that if you’re on the fringes to begin with, it’s much easier to find yourself on the outside eventually. Which I’m sure isn’t news.

  20. ” testimonies apparently need maintenance, and I don’t like that.”

    I’ve noticed that something as simply as studying the words of the Savior and engaging with them in a “deeper” does the trick.

  21. This seems like a lot of unnecessary thought/effort to speculate why and how someone leaves the church when you could simply just ask them.

  22. Thank you Angela. Important post, it caused an itch on my crust that has to be scratched, I hope the resulting stripes are at least tangentially relevant to the OP…
    Do y’all want to talk about ego depletion? Let me tell you about ego depletion… (I am not learned in regards to the psychological dynamics Jennifer Roach, but I can say how I feel about the concept the words bring to mind – (as someone who does not want to leave the church). It is one thing to love the smell of cigarette smoke at church. It is yet another thing to conflate the “culture of evil and personal wickedness in the world,” with “increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay and transgender lifestyles and values.” Or to call transgender people “confused” or to hear that you are amoral because of who you are, and that these words were not spoken by some overzealous local leader, but by DHO himself? How can those of us who are LGBTQ feel like we are anything but marginal acceptable losses when we are berated in public and with force from the very top? No wonder we are expected to pray away the gay or the trans… and we are still outcast, and dangerously lonely. People are still crying and dying even in the midst of a testimony and witness. Just three weeks ago I met a lonely isolated secretly transgender Latter-day Saint who had spent several weeks in the hospital because she had very nearly killed herself because she saw no way for her to be accepted in the Kingdom of God on Earth and felt like she just needed to get things sorted out. Gratefully she was not successful. She asked me how I reconciled my testimony of the Church with being transgender. i told her I had stopped trying to reconcile dogma to reality. All I can do is Trust Christ, try to act lovingly if I can, and to make sure I can live.

    Why can’t we see that if homosexual people can forge marriages of strength and fidelity and raise children in love within the confines of this word, that it should be possible in the eternities. Why can’t we accept that the gender identity forged tenaciously by a person’s brain and mind may be more congruent with their eternal spirit than the genitals visible on their periphery? Why can’t we see that the tendency to teach that God will work it all out in the resurrection leaves people feeling desperate and empty in this life, when even the resurrection seems an Orwellian appropriation of a person’s very identity. How would you, my cis-gender-hetero-normative brothers and sisters, feel with the prospect that YOU might be forced to be another gender or another sexual orientation in the resurrection? How would you feel with the prospect that you could never have hope of a meaningful non-celibate life that is celebrated and affirmed within the covenants in this life… I mean how many of YOU could hold out? Being transgender is not a cross for me to bear any more… all of y’all are a cross for me to bear (not literally all of y’all, I have met much kindness amidst the oceans of ignorance). The reason why we can’t see, is that we won’t see. We are holding tribal and culturally normative, (and perhaps dare I even suggest political?) imperatives higher than the actual evidence and in higher regard than the imperatives of love. We can’t see because we won’t see – and it is dangerous. People perish.

    P.S. by “political” I am thinking in this way – any concept that an outlook or policy or understanding can’t be changed or elevated because it might just “blow too many minds” is political.

  23. Adriana Zarate Villaseca says:

    It’s all a tantrum. God is perfect and his Creation is perfect.

    1 Corinthians 3:19 For the wisdom of this world is foolish in God’s sight.

  24. AZV…
    I am part of God’s creation.
    Does your comprehension of me circumscribe God’s wisdom, or your own paradigm? I have nearly broken against the paradigm. I feel whole now that he has comforted me. Was it God’s wisdom or man’s foolishness that withheld the priesthood from people of African descent? Is it a tantrum to ask the question?

    1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
    2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
    3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

    1 Corinthians 13:1-3

  25. Lona Gynt, thank you. Thank you for speaking truth. Thank you for being you. All of you.

  26. Thank you friend

  27. Lona
    Gay marriage is not sustainable in society and will not be sustainable after this life. It’s the prophets are all against it, its not a good idea to be out there supporting it. Remember when Christ went to the spirit world he was not able to personally go to those who had defiled themselves in the flesh.

  28. Wondering says:

    Some are in a habit of claiming Christ “was not able to personally go [or could not go] to those who had defiled themselves in the flesh.” They fail to read the verse they rely on D&C 138:20 which says, in reporting Joseph F. Smith’s vision, that he did not go and does not say he could not go. They also fail to note that there is no associated scriptural definition of “defiled themselves in the flesh” so that any such argument against same-gender marriage in effect assumes its conclusion. I wonder how often I fail to read or to realize that my rationales are circular.

  29. Wondering
    The prophets and apostles are men that have been set aside to help us navigate safely through mortality and return home to Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ himself said whether it’s through my voice or the voice of my servants it is the same. The church is set up to save souls, not to destroy them.

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