Posted Aug 22, 2011 10:30 am CDT
A study of a parole board considering the fate of Israeli prisoners demonstrates the concept of decision fatigue—and how timing can affect good decision-making.
The study found that board members were more likely to grant parole at the start of the day and after breaks for food. The problem, researchers said, was “choice overload.” When faced with too many decisions, people are more likely to opt for the default choice. In these cases, the default was the denial of parole.
The New York Times cites the study in a story on research about “decision fatigue.” Experiments show it becomes increasingly difficult to make good choices as a series of decisions are made. As fatigue sets in, people respond in one of two ways. They either avoid any choices, choosing the default option if possible, or they act impulsively. (Unfortunately for dieters, glucose found in carbohydrates can help replenish the brain, explaining why the parole board members were more generous after eating.)
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car,” the Times reports.
The story suggests that in a world of BlackBerrys and the Internet at work, we are facing more decisions and more decision fatigue than our ancestors. Should we check out the latest video on YouTube or finish up that project? For poor people, frequent decisions must be made about how to get the most out of limited budgets. The consequence may be less willpower for more important activities like school and work.
Social psychologist Roy Baumeister sees a lesson in the findings. People who excel at self-control, he says, are the ones who structure their days to conserve willpower.
The good decision-makers, the Times explains, “don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”