The phrase “spoiled for choice” is often thrown around in modern times. The average person is presented with more variety than ever when deciding what to eat, what to buy, and even what to watch on television. Decision fatigue is best described as the depletion of a person’s mental and physical resources in the process of utilizing executive function–in this case, making choices. It is a real and measurable phenomenon with impact on everyday life. In the article “Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources” (Vohs et. al.) four separate tests and a field study were used to test the effects of decision fatigue on participants.

Testing Self-Regulation

Each test split the participants into two groups: choice and no-choice. The choice group was consistently told to make choices before an act of measurable self control such as keeping their hands in a cold-water bath. The no-choice group was likewise put through tests of self-control, though they were given a different initial test; for example, if the choice group was told to choose a product from a number of categories, the no-choice group would be told to rank the frequency of use of the same products from the categories. In each test the choice groups presented less self-regulation than the no-choice groups. Using the ice bath test as an example, the choice group kept their hands in the water for less time than the no-choice group. Each subsequent test refined the previous test further in an attempt to remove variables. When mood questionnaires were given after the choice/no-choice tests and before the self-control test, there was no measurable difference between the two groups and so frustration, anxiety etc. were removed as a factor. The conclusion of the article, and the conclusion that we can draw from it, is that self-control and self-regulation suffers measurably after decision making–a term also known as ego depletion.

The Judge’s Dilemma

In another study by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Shai Danzinger of Ben-Gurion University, judges sitting on parole cases were observed for a period of ten months. The time of parole hearings was noted, as was the length of sentence and the crime of each prisoner. The study found that prisoners whose hearing was early in the day were more likely to be granted parole–65 percent of the time. In contrast those who appeared late in the day won parole only 10 percent of the time. Similarly, the prisoners whose cases were heard after a mid morning rest and snack or after lunch were also granted parole 65 and 60 percent of the time, respectively. The study brings up the case of two prisoners serving the same sentence for the same crime: one whose parole hearing was heard first thing in the morning, the other whose hearing was last in the day. The first prisoner was granted parole and the second was not. The study indicates that this is likely due to decision fatigue, as the judges have not only been making choices all day but have been making choices that are more impactful than merely what product to pick out of a list.

Everyday Decision Fatigue

Even if one is not a judge who faces important decisions daily, decision fatigue can be seen in everyday life. Perhaps the most frequent example that everyone finds themselves doing is impulse spending at the grocery store. Not only shopping while hungry; impulsively throwing a candy bar from the rack at the checkout line in with the rest of the groceries is something that nearly everyone has done. After going through aisle after aisle and making decisions on what to buy, what can wait, and what brand is better, one’s impulse control has suffered by the time that it is time to check out. Even New Year’s Resolutions can be seen as a constant decision: the decision of whether or not to stick to a desired behavior. The most common resolution, “getting into shape,” comes with a myriad of choices. “Should I have a salad or a hamburger for lunch? Should I work out or watch TV?” By the end of the day when ego depletion is at its highest, the will to make the hard choices is at its lowest.

Fighting Decision Fatigue

Avoiding choices is not a realistic option that one can take to avoid decision fatigue. However, knowledge of the phenomenon and how it works can lead to coping mechanisms. As has been shown in the parole study, decision fatigue can be sidestepped by making important decisions while well-fed and well-rested. Perhaps important decisions can be made early in the day or after meals. One frequently used example is avoiding scheduling a meeting with a wedding planner–an event which calls for numerous decisions to be made–on the same day that an important meeting would be held, thus depleting mental reserves earlier in the day. Removal of extraneous choices is another way of avoiding fatigue. Instead of having every option in the world available, pare down to a few. For example, “What should we do for dinner?” is a question frequently met with frustration and shrugs. “Should we have sandwiches, pasta, or fish for dinner?” gives fewer options and a choice can be made quickly. Avoiding distractions altogether is another way to avoid decision fatigue. Making a list at the grocery store and sticking to it can prevent impulse spending caused by ego depletion. Turning off the television and wi-fi while working on an assignment removes the temptation to constantly subconsciously ask, “Do I want to work on this or do something else?” Decision fatigue is not something that can be completely eliminated by the very nature of how the human mind works, but knowledge is the best way that one can use to fight its effects. In this way, impulsive and irrational decisions can be avoided. Whether one can utilize this in making the best possible decisions at work or in something as simple as avoiding buying a candy bar that one did not really want before standing in line at the store, making the necessary adjustments can lead to a better and happier life.

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