Decision Fatigue


In my last post, I related a story about a colleague who had a difficult choice to make. At one point, he commented that he would actually have been happier had the decision simply been made for him. Recent research indicates that there are several components to this emotion. One (which I talked about last time) concerns the fact that with lots of alternatives, not only does the time and effort required to make a decision increase, but one’s expectation of satisfaction – indeed, of sheer delight – soars, making disappointment all the more likely. We’re actually happier with fewer choices.

But there’s a second dimension to the “less is more” phenomenon, too: making decisions is exhausting. Apparently, willpower is a well which can run dry, just as physical energy can run down in the wake of strenuous exercise. Test subjects who were asked to exert self-control in one way or another (by stifling laughter during funny videos, or resisting freshly baked cookies sitting out on a table) were less able to exert willpower afterward. This was true even when the follow-on test was very different from the initial test – say, holding one’s hand in a bowl of ice water for as long as possible.

An article by John Tierney in the New York Times Magazine a couple of years ago provides an excellent summary of this issue. Or you can just talk to anyone who has recently got married or had a house built. The hundreds of decisions simply wear people down to the point where, as Jean Twenge, a newly married postdoctoral fellow at social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s laboratory put it, “By the end, you could have talked me into anything.”

Salespeople are well aware of the fact that as the decisions mount, people become ever more inclined to go with the default option if there is one, or the recommended option if there isn’t. Tierney describes car buyers in Germany who had to choose between 4 kinds of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 possible engine and gearbox combinations, and 56 different colors for the interior. Whether they went for the snazzy rims or the bigger engine depended heavily on when they got to those decisions and how much they still had in the willpower tank.

Part of the problem is literally energy, in the form of blood sugar. Give someone something to eat – especially something with a quick glucose buzz – and their willpower jumps back up to a high level. Tierney describes how a strong predictor of whether a prisoner is granted parole is the time of day his hearing is held – and more specifically, how long it’s been since the judge last ate something. Deplete the brain of energy, and judges tend to go with the default decision: parole denied. This is also a form of decision deferral, since the judge can always grant parole next time.

This research can lead one to have a bit more sympathy for the overweight. Consider the Catch-22 situation of the dieter. As the day wears on, not only is he repeatedly resisting temptation, thereby reducing his stock of willpower, but the one thing which can help him to replenish that stock is the very thing he’s denying himself: high-energy-content food. No wonder so many otherwise high-willpower people have a hard time shedding pounds.

Dean Spears, an economist at Princeton, has argued that decision fatigue is also a major (and often ignored) factor in trapping people in poverty. Every item a lower-income person places in her shopping cart requires a rigorous mental assessment of whether she can afford the name brand vs. the generic, the higher-quality meat vs. the cheaper cuts, etc. And it doesn’t stop when she leaves the grocery store. Life is a never-ending series of trade-offs for a person at the lower end of the economic spectrum, requiring 24/7 restraint. This depletes their willpower, which contributes to their making poor life choices, which reduces the chance that they will work their way out of poverty. As Teirney writes, “Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’ – epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food – but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget.” I can remember grocery shopping as a poor student, keeping a mental tally in my head as I filled the basket because the money in my pocket was all the money I had. I’m sure that by the end, I was a sucker for an impulse buy, too (although mine was more likely to be beer).

So what should we do about this? Well, in the interest of justice, we should make sure that judges have easy access to snacks during the day. But apart from that? How about in our personal and professional lives?

Certainly, if you make a lot of decisions in your work and if you have some control over your daily schedule, try to ensure that major decisions aren’t made on an empty stomach. Ditto for any major life decisions, whether work-related or not. Be aware of the fact that as you make more and more decisions, your tendency to settle for the default option and the ease with which you are led by others’ recommendations (especially “helpful” salespeople) both increase.

And perhaps a little understanding is in order the next time you see a dieter tucking into a Snickers bar.


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