Why can’t I decide on my dinner?
Making decisions is exhausting, regardless of context. Let’s look here at “Decision Fatigue”, tossing in my own experience within the field of education, plus the idea of ego depletion for good measure. I will begin our tale back in 2004, when psychologist Barry Schwartz published a book, “The Paradox of Choice”. Based in part on “The Jam Study” (by Iyengar and Lepper in 2000, when consumers bought more jam when the display had fewer varieties), Barry’s argument is that more choice leads to paralysis, less satisfaction, and more anxiety. He did a related TED talk in July 2005. Ten years later (Dec 2014) there was a follow-up conversation with him; attempts to duplicate the results of “The Jam Study” have had mixed success. Is the whole idea ridiculous? Or have we merely not pinned down what situations cause such paralysis?
With no clear answer yet, let’s turn to a study published in 2011. Levav and Danzinger analyzed judge decisions over the course of a year in an Israeli court, and found that prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole 70% of the time, while those who appeared late in the day received parole 10% of the time - even when the infraction was essentially equivalent. A conclusion was that judges were experiencing “decision fatigue”; the more choices one makes throughout the day without breaks, the more mentally fatigued one becomes, and thus the more one will look for shortcuts (such as maintaining the status quo). The term “decision fatigue” was coined by social psychologist Roy Baumeister. The tricky thing about it is that you don’t feel physically tired, so you may be less aware of the problem.
Returning to the original question now, it’s more difficult to decide on dinner because it comes at the end of a day. A day spent making a host of other decisions. Decisions imposed on us by society (such as jams in the supermarket), by ourselves (do I check social media or not), and by our careers (as in the case of the judges). Speaking as an educator, I know grading papers wipes me out, and most teachers would say it’s one of the least pleasant parts of the job. I feel it’s even harder of late, because you cannot simply tally up points - you need to analyze every test holistically, according to the individual student and criteria, before deciding on a single grade. Which could mean that’s 30 other decisions an educator doesn’t feel like dealing with in that day, before we even get into the actual process of teaching itself. I presume there are some similarities to other occupations.
Tied up with “decision fatigue” is something called “ego depletion” - the notion that we have a limited supply of willpower. It decreases throughout the day, as we do things like make decisions. Here, studies were done where willpower was first depleted through an event of self-control (for instance, “don’t eat these cookies” or “don’t cry during this emotional scene”) and then the subjects were given something that required mental effort to complete. Those with depleted willpower spent less time on the task than a control group. Baumeister even published a book on Willpower in 2011, looking at how we might prevent the drain, with ties to glucose levels. And now, in 2016... the possibility has been raised that the whole idea is incorrect.
Ah, science, never change. Or rather, often change. The main issue became how the effect might only exist for people who believe in it (similar to the placebo effect). But do the more recent debates and investigations into “ego depletion” necessarily impact “decision fatigue”? Is it equally possible that loss of willpower may happen to some people, under the right conditions, and yet not others? And what about that initial idea of paralysis of choice, how does that figure in? Are you feeling at all overwhelmed by the fact that I’m effectively turning the decision-making back on you?
Well, if we DO assume that there is something to “decision fatigue”, some strategies have been raised that can help. The most obvious one is to reduce some of your 35,000 daily decisions by increasing routine. With one of the biggest elements there being limiting your wardrobe, so that you don’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. A second strategy is to pick your battles; not to constantly worry about getting the best option. Choose something that will suffice, so that you’re less tempted to default to the status quo with more important decisions later on. Finally, ask for help. This last is particularly useful if you know someone else who has more expertise. Granted, all of this may not help you to pick your dinner, or me to grade my papers, but at the least, it can give you the gift of time. Time which might have otherwise been spent overanalyzing. Thank you for deciding to read this column!
For further viewing:
1. Why We Experience Decision Fatigue
2. Deciding for others is more fun than doing it for ourselves
3. “Fighting Decision Fatigue” (SmithBusinessSchool video)
Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know!