Decisions, we make thousands of them everyday, mostly in our subconscious but a few get included at a conscious level. Apparently we make over 220 decisions just in relation to deciding when and where how much to eat and drink every day. Goodness, I am already starting to feel tired thinking about all those decisions: which is of course exactly what our brain experiences too.
It’s called decision fatigue and like so many other aspects of our brain functions, our ability to decide depends on the fine balance of all those neurochemicals, hormones, oxygen and nutrition to allow it all to happen.
If you have ever lived through the process of building a house or renovating a bathroom you may have experienced decision fatigue. After spending hours examining all the different permutations of modern showerheads: the size, the shape, the volume of water spray, the knob to vary the types of spray – soft, hard or pulsating, whether to have it fixed or hand held, stainless steel or white or coloured, the matching taps, whether to have the soap-dish external or built in as a tile. I could go on – but have you ever got to the point where you have examined the multitude of choices, there are still lots more to look at and all you want to happen is for someone else to please decide now, because you simply don’t have the energy to care about the decision anymore.
Our brain was not designed for relentless decision making, which is why we can sometimes simply run out of mental juice and look for the easy option out, preferably without having to make yet another pesky decision.
The problem starts with having to weigh up all the pros and cons before making a decision. Some people seem better at this than others. Some people love exploring all the fine print and options so as to have all the information available to them before making a final choice. These folks are probably very good potential travel companions, as they are likely to be the ones who have investigated all the good restaurants to try or which are the best values for money excursions to see the sights. They will save you countless hours of indecision as they have the vital clues at their fingertips. Which is good (up to a point!) For those who prefer just to swim with the tide and explore whatever comes their way, such analytical investigation might seem an anathema.
Moving onto the second phase of making a decision. Having obtained the necessary information, it’s now crunch time for you …to decide. This is where the mental fatigue can set in.
There is a lovely study which examined the decision choices of a parole board made up of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker considering the cases of three prison inmates who had all completed at least two thirds of their prison sentence, to determine who would get parole or not. The outcome was that only one man was granted parole – but what was it that determined their decision?
Was it the nature of the crime? Two had committed fraud and the third assault.
Was it their ethnic background? Two were Arab Israeli and one was Jewish Israeli.
Was it the length of time originally determined for the sentence? Two were serving 30 months and one was serving 16 months.
In fact it was none of the above. The difference was simply the time of day that the case was heard.
At the beginning of the day we are (hopefully) mentally refreshed and ready to spend the necessary time evaluating, considering and deciding. But of course as soon as we get into the swing of our busy day, continuing decision-making starts to wear us down – our brain gets tired. And as a consequence you may then start to experience putting decisions off, because they have simply become too taxing. It doesn’t matter how “good” your brain is in terms of knowledge or expertise, we are all subject to the same thinking limitations and one of the biggest issues is mental fatigue.
The parole board granted parole to the man who appeared before them early in the day. In fact analysis of over 1100 similar decisions over a year showed the same pattern. Appeals heard early in the morning have a 70% chance of being approved, compared to 10% who appear late in the day!
Fair? Well not if you have no say in what time of day your court case gets heard!
But it explains why towards the end of our day we are more likely to perhaps make either poorer decisions or no decision at all. So doing the supermarket shopping on your way home might seem a good idea, but your ability to decide on items is going to be reduced, as is your will power to resist those chocolate bars at the checkout.
If you are a manager or executive, holding an after hours meeting at the end of the day “to decide” on policy or management or job applicants is perhaps not going to produce the desired outcome or choice.
The brain when in a fatigued state will make one of two choices: either to avoid making the decision altogether and defer to another day, or to act impulsively rather than considering the consequences of the decision- such as buying a really expensive new outfit for that work function next week, that you are not sure really suits you or that you even like, or perhaps sending out that “funny” email to all your work colleagues without thinking about all the potential repercussions.
However there is light at the end of the tunnel, because researchers have discovered a simple solution to our loss of will power and decision-making and it comes in the shape of…
Yes, having a drink of something like lemonade made with sugar will boost your mental capacity and restore self-control and the quality of our decision-making.
Perhaps all parole boards should provide lemonade at regular intervals for all members.
Tierney, J and Baumeister R. “Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength”.