Has your significant other ever come home from work and said, “My brain’s tired?”
There’s a very real possibility that he or she was right. A relatively new concept in psychology and neuroscience has come to light and may explain how our brains really can get tired after a long day at work making decisions.
Decision fatigue is a genuine condition. The term refers to the way decisions made by people after a long session of decision making will deteriorate (Baumeister, 2003). The effects of decision fatigue can be seen in the probability of prisoners being granted parole depending on the time of day their cases are heard by a judge (Tierney, 2011). In a study of this probability in an Israeli parole board setting, prisoners who appeared early in the morning or shortly after a break for food and rest were much more likely to be granted parole than those appearing later in the day.
In experiments conducted at Stanford University, Danzigera, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso (2011) described how people can blame decision fatigue for their inability to resist salespeople’s efforts to sell them things they don’t need. It appears people’s willpower, or ability to consider the pros and cons of choices, is lessened greatly after they’ve had to make a series of even small decisions. This makes it more likely they will either choose whatever the salesperson recommends, make an impulse decision about buying something, or not make a decision at all. The latter choice can increase the pressure a person feels about a decision he or she must make, thus leading to more decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is an important consideration here at Christmas time. Deciding the right thing to buy for others, shopping for it, then paying a good price for it are uppermost in most people’s minds at this time of year.
It’s no wonder that Black Friday is the best, or worst, time of the year to buy things and buy things and buy things.
What Is The Mechanism Behind Decision Fatigue?
As mentioned earlier, willpower is a major factor at play in decision fatigue. Willpower appears to be similar to a muscle in that it gets tired after being used over and over (Clear, 2013). Every time you make a decision, you’re using willpower. Its strength grows less and less the more decisions you make.
You make a lot of decisions daily. These range from mundane, such as what do I wear today or what do I eat for breakfast, to the important, such as what direction should my company take regarding employees’ benefits. Every one of these decisions requires mental energy, willpower. Every one of them typically decreases the ability to make future decisions that day.
There appears to be a connection between the brain and glucose levels at work in decision fatigue (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). The brain gets its energy from glucose. Thus, it is logical that glucose will be used up as the brain is used in decision making. That appears to be the fact as shown by experiments conducted by Baumeister. He showed refueling the brain with bursts of sugary lemonade improved decision making efforts after decision fatigue set in.
Certain areas of the brain are apparently involved in decision fatigue. The reward system in the nucleus accumbens and the part of the brain that is involved in impulse control, the amygdala (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). In decision fatigue, brain activity increases in the reward area and decreases in the impulse control area.
Thus, when glucose levels in the brain are lower due to having made many decisions, the tendency to give in to impulse buying increases. Willpower, the ability to weigh pros and cons of decisions, apparently significantly decreases.
The Relationship Between Decision Fatigue and Christmas Spending
With so much emphasis placed on buying just the right gift, spending just the right amount on each person on the list, and getting things bought before Christmas Day, decision fatigue can play a very significant role in Christmas spending. Faced with the prospect of shopping in the evening after working all day, feeling the pressure of competing with everyone else out there doing the same thing, and wanting to get home to rest, many people may skip eating in order to get this chore done.
Wrong thing to do. After making the multitude of decisions at work that everyone has to make, the level of glucose available to the brain is significantly decreased. Not eating decreases it even more. This leads to decision fatigue. And just at the time decision making needs to be at its best.
And in every store, on every web site, there are multiple versions of every possible product to choose from. Every choice for every gift requires energy in the form of glucose. When this energy is not available for the brain to use, it chooses shortcuts.
One of those shortcuts is impulse buying. Spending recklessly without considering the consequences is this type of impulse buying. Grabbing the first thing the salesperson shows or recommends.
Another shortcut is to do nothing. Not making a decision gets the person past agonizing over options. It’s the ultimate energy saver.
The later in the shopping season a person waits to buy, the closer it grows until Christmas, the more pressure is felt to get shopping done. But the less energy is available to decide what to buy. A person may consider only one aspect of a purchase: its cost. Choosing the least expensive item is easier than figuring out all possible considerations in cost.
Or, a person may make the easier choice of getting the very best of whatever is being bought. Indulgence in the form of getting the top of the line is an easier choice than trying to compare price and quality.
In short, decision fatigue plays people into the hands of sharp marketers who know how to time their sales pitches. When tired, people tend to take whatever the salesperson suggests.
Diagnosis of Decision Fatigue
There are no formal decision rules for diagnosing decision fatigue. No symptoms that show willpower is getting low. However, there are signs to look for. The following are taken from Tierney (2011):
Everything seems to be felt or experienced more intensely. Frustrations have more impact that usual. Impulsivity grows the more the ability to make decisions lessens. Eating, drinking, or spending impulsively become a greater likelihood.
People who experience decision fatigue and have lowered regulatory ability may get into verbal or possibly physical fights over turf. Someone cutting in line may set off an argument. Getting cut off in traffic leads to road rage more easily.
When decision fatigue sets in, people begin taking shortcuts that make no logical sense when faced with further decisions. These shortcuts do not typically take long-term effects into consideration. Rather, they focus solely on short-term benefits. They tend to be the decisions that follow a safer or easier route even if it may have long-term negatives for others.
Ways To Deal With Decision Fatigue
Overcoming decision fatigue may not be an easy task. Especially during the Christmas shopping season. But following are some ideas that can help (Clear, 2013; Lohrbeer, 2012).
- Make routine decisions the night before. Everyone has those decisions that have to be made over and over again on a daily basis. What do I wear? Do I eat breakfast? If so, what? Making these decisions the night before will conserve your decision-making energy the next day so you can start off fully charged, as it were.
- If at all possible, do the most important thing first. You want to have the most energy possible available for the most important decisions you face. Thus, get those decisions over with early in the day.
- Limit the number of options you must choose among. The more choices there are in a decision situation, the more difficult the decision and the more energy it requires. Keep the number of options you have when faced with a decision to the fewest possible.
- When making decisions later in the day, stop and eat something first. Research indicates replenishing the level of glucose available to your brain makes decisions both easier and better. Take a break and feed your brain.
- Simplify. Focus on one thing at a time. And those things should be the important things to you. Keep in mind not everything has to be important right now. If you have to, write down those things that strive to make a place in your head when you need to focus. They may not be as important at the moment as that decision you should be focusing on.
Willpower and the ability to make decisions aren’t things you either have or don’t have. They fluctuate during the day. Knowing when you make the best decisions and addressing the most important things in your life then will help. It isn’t possible to be at the top of your game in making decisions all the time every day. By making some changes in your life, becoming aware of those times of the day when you’re at your best, you can make the best decisions possible and learn to deal with decision fatigue.
Baumeister, R.F. & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-regulation failures, an overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7(1):1-15.
Baumeister, R.F. (2003). The psychology of irrationality. In Brocas, I. & Carrillo, J.D. The Psychology of Economic Decisions: Rationality and Well-Being, pp 1-15.
Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower. Penguin Press: London.
Clear, J. (2013). The science behind bad decisions: Is ‘decision fatigue’ causing you to make unhealthy choices? Retrieved from http://www.huffintonpost.com/james-clear/decision-fatigue_b_4044212.html.
Danzigera, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17): 6889-6892.
Lohrbeer, T. (2012). 6 ways to tame decision fatigue. Retrieved from http://leandecisions.com/2012/07/6-ways-to-tame-decision-fatigue.html.
Tierney, J. (2011). Do you suffer from decision fatigue? Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html.