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Decision Fatigue and Ego Depletion – Too Tired to Decide



Lisa, recently engaged, went shopping with her mother on Saturday, browsing through thirty-six wedding dresses, after trying on fourteen, she put three on hold. Next she spent two hours with her fiancé picking out patterns for their gift registry, Bone or white? Green or blue? Paisley or diamond trim? Six or twelve? During lunch she pushed aside her favorite food, the French fries the waiter mistakenly brought with the grilled chicken and steamed vegetables she ordered because she was on a diet. At home, hungry but trying to hold off snacking until dinner, she worked on designing the company brochure her boss needed Monday but for some reason she couldn’t remember which color to put on the center panel, although she’d recalled talking about it the day before. When the sales rep came over at 4pm to help finalize her health plan Lisa couldn’t process all the endless choices he showed her so she decided to re-schedule the meeting. By seven o’clock when her fiancé called to ask where she wanted to go dinner, a question she usually loved contemplating, she snapped, “I really don’t care. You pick. I’m really not too hungry anyway. I just ate down an entire pint of chocolate brownie ice cream, so much for my diet.” Decision fatigue, a phenomenon increasingly intriguing psychologists today given the growing culture of endless distractions and over-stimulation, is a term coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. Vaguely introduced by Freud, he believed people constantly struggle to manage their inner desires against the external pressures of the ego, which in turn requires mental energy. The ego, straining to resist urges, becomes depleted and therefore less resistant to future desires, diluting a person’s willpower and impulse control. Ego depletion suggests people have a finite, exhaustible amount of mental energy to exert and that related tasks share and use up those mental resources. Ego depletion then leads to decision fatigue, compromising a person’s ability to exert willpower and self-control, so more likely to make bad decisions and snap judgments.

Impact of Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue affects everyone from time to time, executives making corporate decisions late at night, athletes running plays in the fourth quarter, school teachers grading their 50thpaper, shoppers deciding which flat screen TV to buy after looking for three hours. Decision fatigue can have serious side effects. Researchers Jonathan Levav and Shai Danziger found that judges’ favorable rulings for defendants gradually dropped after each subsequent decision they made. Once they took a break however, the probability the judge awarded a favorable ruling jumped back up. Without giving the brain a break, chronic decision-making has a negative and diminishing effect, with each decision becoming harder for people to make as the day wears on. The brain, too tapped out to run through its usual mental processes, eventually tries to find shortcuts in two very different ways. The first is to act recklessly rather than to expend the energy to logically think through consequences, the second is to do nothing, an unwise decision in the face of situations that require thoughtful action. Decision fatigue can lead to:

  • Inconsistent, erroneous decision-making
  • Difficulty making trade-offs
  • Decision paralysis
  • Impulse buying
  • Difficulty in self-regulation

Most people are unaware of how overworked the brain can get with relentless decision making. They might just snap at the produce manager because he’s out of Bijou pears, spend $200 on a pair of shoes on impulse, finish a box of cookies, or buy the extended warranty on their dryer after the salesman calls for the third time and offers a mere $20 discount. Mental fatigue unlike physical can sneak up on someone even if the person consciously tries to rationalize or push past exhaustion. It takes more than willpower.

Willpower Theory De-Bunked

Early experiments on willpower and self-control suggested that willpower is like a muscle that when fatigued could no longer function properly, so in order to have willpower available people need to conserve it by avoiding the temptation. Learn to push away the brownies and next time the gooey decadence presents, saying no will be that much easier.

Not so, researchers found.

Jean Twenge, a doctoral student working with Baumeister’s, began looking at ego-depletion research not long after planning her wedding. Recalling how exhausted she was after going through the process of deciding what she wanted for her gift registry, she was struck by an idea. Twenge set up an experiment in the lab where college students were exposed to three different shopping scenarios with items selected by researchers that would genuinely interest the students. They told the first group that they could keep one item but had to first go through a hierarchy of choices. Would they prefer a cup or a candle? A candle? Vanilla or almond-scented? A candle or a T-shirt? Which color t-shirt? The next group could spend the same amount of time considering the same products but they didn’t have to make choices (the “non-deciders”). This group just had to give their opinion on each product and indicate how often they used it each during the last six months. Afterward, the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control, how long they could hold their hand in ice-water. The non-deciders lasted much longer, 67 seconds, compared to the deciders, who only lasted 28… Researchers hypothesized that making choices sapped willpower, an effect scientists found is not an isolated effect. To test their theory in the real world, the researchers went to a shopping mall and asked people about their experience shopping that day. They then presented them with some simple arithmetic problems to solve, asking them to do as many as they could but to quit whenever they wanted. The people who indicated they made the most decisions shopping that day gave up more quickly on the math problems, again illustrating that constant choice affects willpower.

Go with Your Gut: Feeding Brain Battles Decision Fatigue

At one time researchers held tightly to the so-called Mardi Gras theory, the notion that people can save up their willpower by first giving themselves what they want and so later they would be more likely to resist temptation. A study at Florida State however proved otherwise. Subjects fed a tasteless mixture of low-fat dairy were just as likely to perform well on tasks assigned to them as subjects fed delicious milkshakes. Baumeister decided to look past the decades-old theory psychologists held that the brain was like a computer that could be programmed, and instead focus on the missing puzzle, a critical component of the brain’s operating function, its power supply. In a study Baumeister found that subjects who ingested glucose, a primary source of energy, had less or no ego depletion which helped restore their willpower, improve their self-control and the quality of their decisions. Subjects were more resistant to irrational bias and when asked to make a financial decision, they were more likely to choose a prudent long term strategy rather than a quick payoff. Glucose, Baumeister and other researchers believe, is an essential part of willpower. A person’s brain doesn’t simply stop working when glucose is low however; it halts some functions and starts others such, paying immediate attention to rewards and paying less attention to long-term prospects.

Most Tiring Decision Phase – Pulling the Trigger

Psychologists have long since broken down decision-making processes into what they refer to as the Rubicon model of action, phases named after a time in history when Caesar had to decide whether to cross the Rubicon river, a forbidden act that would signal he was invading Rome. Waiting to cross he was in the “predecisional,” phase, yet after deliberating, what he referred to as the moment “the die is cast” he entered the “postdecisional phase.” While decision-making over time can zap willpower, the postdecisional phase is the most fatiguing. People don’t like to lose their options which makes them somewhat resistant to making final decisions. Mental fatigue also makes people less likely to make trade-offs, to give up one option for another. This might partly explain why opposing parties locked in negotiations can work for days to find a compromise yet end up in a stale mate. THIS IS MY HYPOTHESIS. I DIDN’T FIND IT IN THE LITERATURE…

Shopping and Impulse Purchases

Bombarded with decision fatigue, shoppers are more likely to settle for the default offer or recommended option. The seeming path of least resistance becomes more attractive when the brain goes into decision overload. Shopping can be particularly mentally exhausting for the poor. Dean Spears and other researchers argue that decision fatigue can contribute to the cycle of poverty because with little means people must dedicate a tremendous amount of time making financial trade-offs, leaving them with less mental energy and willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might move them into the middle class. Spears urges people to resist passing judgment on those who on a low budget, they see grabbing sugary, fattening snacks in the grocery store. Faced with non-stop tradeoff decisions while food shopping, their willpower may erode, leaving them more vulnerable to impulse buying. It’s no accident check-out aisles are packed with point of purchase items such as soda, candy and magazines.

Preventing Decision Fatigue

Mind power, what someone believes about willpower, also plays a role in decision fatigue. Researcher Carol Dweck found “people get fatigued or depleted after a taxing task only when they believe that willpower is a limited resource, but not when they believe it’s not so limited.” Given the growing number of distractions that demand attention, while social psychologists have no way of knowing how decision fatigue affected our ancestors, they believe people are more ego depleted today than ever. Yet as a growing field of study, it’s still difficult to absolutely gauge mental fatigue. People might generally feel burnt out, overwhelmed; the intensity behind their feelings tend to increase. They become irritable, unfocused. People who structure their lives so they conserve their willpower have more self-control, Baumeister suggests. This means they don’t schedule non-stop back to meetings; they avoid all-you-can-eat buffets and they create habits that regularly decrease the mental effort of making non-stop choices. “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

  • References
    • 1. Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.5 (1998): 1252-265. Print.
    • 2. Brocas, Isabelle, and Juan D. Carrillo. The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Oxford, [England: Oxford UP, 2003. 1-15. Print.
    • 3. Dean Spears. “Economic Decision-Making in Poverty Depletes Behavioral Control.” (2010). Princeton University. Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <http://www.princeton.edu/ceps/workingpapers/213spears.pdf>.
    • 4. Hagger, Martin S., Chantelle Wood, Chris Stiff, and Nikos L. D. Chatzisarantis. “Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-control: A Meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 136.4 (2010): 495-525. Print.
    • 5. Job, V., C. S. Dweck, and G. M. Walton. “Ego Depletion–Is It All in Your Head?: Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 21.11 (2010): 1686-693. Print.
    • 6. John Tierney. “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” The New York Times. Web. 27 Sept. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html>.
    • 7. Kathleen D. Vohs, and Roy F. Baumeister. “Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources — But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives.” Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <http://www.chicagobooth.edu/research/workshops/marketing/archive/WorkshopPapers/vohs.pdf>.
    • 8. Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso. “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (2011): 6889-892. Print.

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