Erin Nickell

We’ve all had to exercise self-control in our personal and professional lives. Whether you’re trying to avoid sugar to drop a few pounds or attempting to quit smoking, you’re depleting mental resources that are needed to make good decisions.

In a recent article in Today’s CPA magazine, titled “Are you depleted? The Role of Ego Depletion in Accounting,” Daniels’ accounting professor Erin Nickell, along with Kelsey Brasel and Sharon Huang from Ball State University, discuss how ego depletion affects practicing CPAs, especially those in complex audit environments.

“Overriding one’s natural responses can be extremely difficult – so difficult, in fact, that successful resistance can drain an individual’s capacity for self-control,” the authors say.

While psychologists have studied ego depletion for many years, it’s a fairly new area of research in the audit setting. Much of an auditor’s work involves reviewing complex accounting information over a long period of time. Recent studies in this area suggest that this work could result in ego depletion, compromising the auditor’s professional judgement and ultimately reducing the effectiveness of the audit function.

“Depletion impairs auditor effectiveness,” the article reads. “Especially for ‘good’ auditors who work comparatively harder than their peers.”

The authors outline several internal and external causes:

  • Uncertainty as companies measure assets and liabilities differently
  • Resisting the temptation to switch tasks
  • Interruptions in the middle of a difficult task
  • Stress and time pressures
  • Strained interpersonal interactions
  • Impaired health, even lack of sleep
  • Less experience

“Depleted auditors make significantly less accurate risk assessments,” the article notes. As a result, Nickell and her colleagues recommend several ways to combat depletion.

  • Give less experienced staff opportunities to job shadow
  • Use self-affirmation techniques
  • Take short breaks between difficult tasks
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, get plenty of rest, attend enjoyable events or participate in hobbies

“It’s important for auditors to be aware of ego depletion and implement strategies for countering the negative effects,” Nickell says.

Before pursuing a career in academia, Nickell worked for Grant Thornton LLP as a senior audit associate. Her experience in public accounting has contributed to her research interests, including fraud, professional skepticism and auditor decision making. She is a licensed CPA in the state of Virginia as well as a Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA) in the state of Colorado.