The New York Times reports some interesting findings on the phenomenon of decision fatigue in a recent article which is well worth reading for those who are burdened by a continuous stream of data, meetings and decision making. Not only is this bad for you and your brain, it means that you end up making really bad decisions which are not in your (or your business’s) best interests!They cite an example of an Israeli parole board where the decisions taken against very similar cases and circumstances are completely different depending on what time the case is heard. The mental work of ruling in many cases, meant that they were much more careful and considerate early in the morning and just after lunch (and an energy boost), and much less considerate in the late morning and late afternoon.
Decision fatigue explains why we get angry at colleagues after a long day at work, buy junk food when we feel we need an energy boost, and sometimes splurge on things we don’t really need. Although we are physically fine, our mental energy can be sapped, and the more decisions (small and large) we take during the day, the more our brain looks for simple shortcuts to make life easier and less strenuous. This can fallout in two different ways. The first is that we become reckless and act impulsively, and the second is that we do nothing (the ultimate energy saver). Unfortunately this also means that we become resistant to change and take the easy way out on anything.
It all boils down to the fact that we all have a finite amount of mental energy, especially the kind we need for keeping self-control. That’s why we can see clearly in the morning, yet can be talked into anything at the end of a long and mentally tiring day. This effect has been measured in a series of experiments. For example, those who have had less decisions to take, can hold their hand in ice-cold water for longer than those who have had to take a number of decisions. This has also been tested in shopping malls, and of course those who have made more purchase decisions show the weakest and slowest mental agility!
Once you are mentally tired, you become very immune to making ‘trade-offs’ (which are particularly taxing on mental decision making). The effect of this is that we become cognitive misers, and seek to simplify decision, perhaps by focusing on a single dimension (like price). Market researchers beware of these real-world effects!
Is there an antidote to this? Yes, and it’s glucose! Unfortunately for dieters this means that they are caught in the ultimate vicious circle:
- In order not to eat, we need willpower
- In order to have willpower, we need to eat
As one of the experimenters says, ““Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there, it’s a state that fluctuates.” His experiments show that those who are best at avoiding these problems are those who structure their daily lives in order to conserve willpower (for example, by avoiding back-to-back meetings). They also avoid temptations like ‘all you can eat’ buffets and ensure that willpower is not required to do the things they need to do (by scheduling regular appointments for exercise instead of relying on their mental strength).
The moral of the story- know when you can and when you can’t trust yourself!