It seems that no matter how good we believe we are at making decisions, we can't continue to make decision after decision without paying a price biologically. We know this about physical and muscle fatigue, but our brains apparently get tired too. The problem is that we typically aren't consciously aware of when we're low on mental energy and therefore we tend to continue to push through, without ever knowing that our self-control (which is the element that tends to over-see bad decision making!) is being depleted.
Decision Fatigue is the term applied to the phenomenon called Ego Depletion - so labelled by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. His experiments showed that there is a finite store of mental energy for self-control. When it is depleted, our ability to resist temptations is also significantly reduced. This new insight helps explain the dieter's dilemma... why losing weight can prove to be so hard. If you are constantly having to deny yourself food that you're craving you are, in essence, having to consistently make a choice between 'cheating' or not. Each decision continues to deplete your willpower resources until you finally cave-in late in the day. This is why candy bars at the check-out counter sell so well. Up until now it was put down to simple impulse purchases. However, if you have been shopping for a while, making decision after decision about what to buy, the make, model, price... you are more fatigued by the time you go to pay. That fatigue results in a loss of willpower and, before you know it, those M&M's are tossed in your cart.
These findings though have bigger, more far reaching implications...
- Research shows that if you are a prisoner going to a parole hearing, you are 70% more likely to be granted parole if you are on the docket early in the morning than if you are scheduled late in the day. Although studies haven't yet been conducted, I can only assume that sentencing decisions late in the day would also be affected. I'm not sure though if it would result in greater or lesser sentencing... which is easier to decide?
- If you have had to make a lot of decisions (even small relatively inconsequential ones), you will give up more than 50% faster on the next decisions you have to make
- Once decision fatigue has set in, you are significantly more likely to settle for whatever the 'recommended' options are from sales personnel. Buying a car? Researchers had customers wade through a number of additional special features that they could select to add onto their proposed new vehicle. Although they weighed their choices carefully in the beginning, as decision fatigue began to set in customers started settling for whatever the default option was. Savvy salespeople of course kept the more expensive options and decisions for the end. The result? Car buyers ended up purchasing more than $2,000 in extras. Decision fatigue can therefore leave you very vulnerable to marketers who know and understand the phenomena and time their sales accordingly.
- The poor are more susceptible than the rich. Interestingly, the less money that you have to spend, the more decisions you have to make - constantly weighing your choices over the course of the day. This leaves you more mentally fatigued and therefore more susceptible to to the effects, making poorer choices for yourself and more easily influenced by others
- When we exercise too much we feel it and know to relax. We allow our body some time to shut down and recover. Our brain though never stops working. It can't, it's in charge of too many processes that are perpetually ongoing. Decision Fatigue then doesn't result in a shut down of the brain, but it does result in the brain stopping its activity on certain things and starting doing others instead. It redirects its focus. The big shift tends to be a refocusing from long-term prospects to focusing instead on more immediate rewards. Yes, you know your long-term goal is to lose those 10 pounds, but your brain has now determined that you deserve that candy bar... now!
In fact, in order to recover from mental fatigue your brain requires glucose. That's why whenever we get exceedingly mentally fatigued we find ourselves reaching for the sweet snacks rather than salty ones. (again... a tough one for dieters who are likely trying to avoid the sweet snacks)
What to do with this?
Know and understand that there are no telltale signs or symptoms of decision fatigue. All decisions, large or small, add up to deplete your will power. Choosing what to have for breakfast, what clothes to wear, what to spend, what model to buy, whether to go out to a movie... all add up. Don't delude yourself into thinking that you are immune... we are all susceptible. Even knowing it happens doesn't prevent it from happening. It is logical to expect therefore, that the decisions you make later in the day are likely to suffer as a result. If you have big decisions to make later in the day then ensure that you top up your glucose levels at least a half hour beforehand.
Additionally, studies show that the people with the best self-control are those that have structured a lot of the elements in their lives so as to conserve their willpower. Actions you can take to conserve yours...
- try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings, allow a little mental recovery time in between whenever possible
- schedule in moments throughout your day that don't require decisions of any kind, take a mental decision break!
- establish habits that standardize activities, thus requiring fewer decisions. (if you set up work out times ahead you don't have to decide each day whether to do it or not)
- make your biggest decisions in the morning
- finish each day making whatever decisions you can for the day ahead (plan out your breakfast, your clothing, your route, your evening activities. If you've got anything left in you, before going to bed (when you will replenish your fatigue), spend it on making some upcoming decisions. Think of this like 'banking' some decision time. You don't know how challenging your next day might be, it never hurts to bank a little insurance!
- when your day has been packed with decisions and choices, know that your brain must be fatigued and avoid making big decisions. Know when not to trust your judgment.