Decision fatigue

18.25, Sunday 15 Apr 2012 Link to this post

Decision fatigue: When you make a lot of choices in a short period of time, you find it harder to exert self-control.

  • Wikipedia’s examples of decision fatigue include: how decision fatigue can leave a person vulnerable to sales and marketing strategies designed to time the sale [such as the hard to turn down] dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car; and this: George Loewenstein has suggested that the disastrous failure of men in high office to control impulses in their private lives may at times be attributed to decision fatigue stemming from the burden of day-to-day decision making. Similarly, Tierney notes that ‘C.F.O.’s [are] prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening’, after a long day of decision-making. Decision paralysis is another form: given the choice between too many things, a person might choose instead to walk away.
  • Inequality of the will (via @tomstafford) which, in a discussion about willpower and poverty, puts forward Baumeister’s conceptualisation of willpower as a muscle: Put simply, willpower gets tired by using it. For example, if you place cookies in front of someone and tell them not to eat them, then they will give up more easily on a difficult task that follows – such as choosing which job offer to accept. (The article makes clear that it is not certain how far the muscle metaphor goes.)
  • Scientific American’s article Tough Choices, reporting on the paper Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative, gets into the science: Why is making a determination so taxing? Evidence implicates two important components: commitment and tradeoff resolution. The first is predicated on the notion that committing to a given course requires switching from a state of deliberation to one of implementation. In other words, you have to make a transition from thinking about options to actually following through on a decision. … Yale University professor Nathan Novemsky and his colleagues suggest that the mere act of resolving tradeoffs may be depleting. For example, in one study, the scientists show that people who had to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually make choices between the very same options.

I was in Las Vegas last week, and seeing the women in short skirts serving at the resort facilities and in the casino bars, remembering also the booth babes at CES, it got me thinking why casinos and trade shows bother doing this. What game are they playing? (You can tell I’m a lot of fun at parties.)

I wonder whether it might be to fatigue the superego. You’re working hard not to behave in an inappropriate fashion around this show, so your self-control becomes inhibited in subsequent situations such as whether to place a big bet or let yourself be guided along a path by a salesperson about a purchase or checking out a product. “Inappropriate fashion” varies for straight men, straight women and gay women. Gay men and people who don’t bother censoring their behaviour would seem to be at an advantage here.

Last thoughts:

People seem to enjoy the large number of choices involved in getting coffee at Starbucks. Does this warm up your decision muscle every morning? And television is the epitome of decision-free consumption - one choice every 30+ minutes - so is this why it belongs so neatly in the evening, when decision fatigue has really kicked in?

Should you ration the decisions you make, wearing the same clothes every day to retain your limited choosy vital fluids for the major stuff? Or does your choice muscle get pumped over the months: the more decisions you make, the better you get?

I mentioned the superego just now, Freud’s concept of the personality’s guiding sense of right and wrong. I find it interesting that decision making and self-control are linked, in that activity in one will fatigue the other. It would be interesting to explore the entire space of functions associated with the superego and find - via mutual fatigue effects - which are, in this functional view, part of the same muscle.