Cocktail Chatter: Decision Fatigue

Susan Sermoneta

Chicken or fish? Stairs or elevator? Starbucks or Coffee Bean? All those little decisions you make throughout the day could actually be doing you harm.

Researchers analyzing more than 1,100 “decisions” or “choices” made during one year of a parole board’s case load found that the likelihood a person would be paroled fluctuated throughout the day. Those who saw the board in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, however, those who saw the board later in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time. Researchers say this isn’t uncommon and is referred to as decision fatigue — the same dubious fate of quarterbacks prone to make poor choices late in a game and employees prone to spelling errors emails later in the day.

The reason? You’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day the harder each choice is for your brain to make a decision. Researchers say that eventually your brain looks for shortcuts to the decision making process. The first typical shortcut is to become “reckless” — choosing a decision without thinking of the consequences. The second common shortcut is to actually do nothing — just avoid any choice.

Researchers say decision fatigue can happen with even the smallest decisions. For example, when people thwarted the temptation to eat an entire bag of candy they were actually less able to fend off other temptations like an extra bagel for an afternoon snack. The researchers say the study found that willpower turned out to be more than a “folk concept” — it really was a form of “mental energy that could be exhausted.”

“Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales,” says John Tierney, a New York Times journalist, in his recent article on decision fatigue.



  1. Decision fatigue is the story of my life. Paper or plastic?

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