“What do you want for dinner?” “I don’t know, whatever you want.” “Pizza it is.”
Is it just me, or has “I had 20 assignments to do but I didn’t know where to start so I ended up doing none of it” becoming increasingly common and relatable?
No? Just me? Fine. But I’m sure we have had at least one such day where we come home after a full day of lectures, tutorials, group meetings and/or work and we sit down for dinner and just can’t decide what to eat, ergo, pizza. Yummy but equally unhealthy.
This decrease in our ability to make good decisions due to extreme cognitive and mental exhaustion over an extended period of time is called decision fatigue.
Willpower is like a muscle
Much like physical fatigue results from constant use of a muscle, decision fatigue runs on a similar principle. Throughout our day we make a number of decisions, (35,000 at an average!) from what to wear, where to eat to whether or not to go to a different continent to pursue a masters’ degree. All such decisions, no matter how big or small require fuel, in the form of mental resources – commonly known as the executive function.
With every decision this resource gets drawn upon and by the end of the day, as this resource gets depleted, so does our ability to make good and rational decisions. It is the biological price we pay in order to be able to make decisions.
It is for the same reason why people like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wear/wore the same clothes everyday (grey t-shirts and black turtleneck, respectively) – it is one less decision to make.
Irrespective of how rational-minded we may be, making one decision after the next is taxing on our mental health. What’s more, unlike physical fatigue, you never notice it.
Jams and Jails
Decision fatigue is considered to be a relatively modern phenomenon, said to occur as a result of increased choices that we have in comparison to previous generations. It is thus, said to be linked with the paradox-of-choice, as reported by a research team from Columbia University.
They informed that from a set of people who were given a choice between 6 jams, 30% went on to make a purchase. However, when another set of people were given a choice between 24 jams, only 3% made a purchase. Thus, exhibiting how people get overwhelmed by too many choices and therefore refrain from making any choice at all. This phenomenon of Decision avoidance is a common go-to for people experiencing decision fatigue.
Another study aimed to evaluate the factors that may impact a judge’s decision in approving prisoners for parole. After examining over 1100 hearings, they suggested that unlike what were thought to be the factors that could affect the judgement, such as the time served, or the type of crime committed, the most prominent factor was found to be the time of the day the hearing was conducted.
It was reported that the people who appeared early in the day, had a 65% chance at a favourable ruling, as opposed to someone who appeared later in the day. This was attributed to the judges’ decision-making ability being drained throughout the day, you know, the executive function resource. The research reported the likelihood for a ruling in favour of the prisoner to steadily drop to zero as the day progressed.
Another fascinating aspect of this study was, that the chance at a favourable outcome would rise back up to 65% immediately after the judge had gone for a food break – because they were refreshed.
Salads are no good!
Keri Russell once said, “it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life forever.” Well, she was a 100% spot on!
Did you know, you could possibly choose the wrong school to go to just because you decided to ditch that piece of chocolate cake and instead forced yourself to eat salad just before?
Turns out, unrelated tasks can have harmful carryover effects due to an overtaxed brain and could potentially affect life-altering decisions. Research suggests that we shouldn’t spend our mental resources on seemingly minor decisions thereby, preventing the toll it may take on the decisions that do matter.
So, my suggestion would be, to stop making it so difficult for yourself, and dive into that chocolate cake!
For better tips on avoiding decision fatigue check out the following: