Enter the characters you see below Sorry, we just need to make sure you’re not do You Make Money From Your Art robot. Enter the characters you see below Sorry, we just need to make sure you’re not a robot. Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? Editor’s note: As you navigate a world of choices, revisit this 2011 magazine story on the paralyzing effects of decision fatigue. Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker.
The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud. A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault. There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.
He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p. There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was reported earlier this year by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. 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. Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis.
Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. But then a postdoctoral fellow, Jean Twenge, started working at Baumeister’s laboratory right after planning her wedding. As Twenge studied the results of the lab’s ego-depletion experiments, she remembered how exhausted she felt the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts. Did they want plain white china or something with a pattern? The symptoms sounded familiar to them too, and gave them an idea. A nearby department store was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so researchers from the lab went off to fill their car trunks with simple products — not exactly wedding-quality gifts, but sufficiently appealing to interest college students. Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater.
28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. For a real-world test of their theory, the lab’s researchers went into that great modern arena of decision making: the suburban mall. They interviewed shoppers about their experiences in the stores that day and then asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems. The researchers politely asked them to do as many as possible but said they could quit at any time. Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul. When Caesar reached it in 49 B.
The whole process could deplete anyone’s willpower, but which phase of the decision-making process was most fatiguing? To find out, Kathleen Vohs, a former colleague of Baumeister’s now at the University of Minnesota, performed an experiment using the self-service Web site of Dell Computers. The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed. As a result, someone without Caesar’s willpower is liable to stay put. Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.
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In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. The idea for these experiments also happened to come in the preparations for a wedding, a ritual that seems to be the decision-fatigue equivalent of Hell Week. At his fiancée’s suggestion, Levav visited a tailor to have a bespoke suit made and began going through the choices of fabric, type of lining and style of buttons, lapels, cuffs and so forth. I couldn’t tell the choices apart anymore. Andreas Herrmann, at the University of St. As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was.
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Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. When they were confronted early on with the toughest decisions — the ones with the most options, like the 100 fabrics for the suit — they became fatigued more quickly and also reported enjoying the shopping experience less. Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs. Most of us in America won’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether we can afford to buy soap, but it can be a depleting choice in rural India.
Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. And this isn’t the only reason that sweet snacks are featured prominently at the cash register, just when shoppers are depleted after all their decisions in the aisles. With their willpower reduced, they’re more likely to yield to any kind of temptation, but they’re especially vulnerable to candy and soda and anything else offering a quick hit of sugar.
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The discovery was an accident resulting from a failed experiment at Baumeister’s lab. The researchers set out to test something called the Mardi Gras theory — the notion that you could build up willpower by first indulging yourself in pleasure, the way Mardi Gras feasters do just before the rigors of Lent. Maybe the study wasn’t a failure. Even the tasteless glop had done the job, but how?
If it wasn’t the pleasure, could it be the calories? At first the idea seemed a bit daft. For decades, psychologists had been studying performance on mental tasks without worrying much about the results being affected by dairy-product consumption. Despite this series of findings, brain researchers still had some reservations about the glucose connection.
Skeptics pointed out that the brain’s overall use of energy remains about the same regardless of what a person is doing, which doesn’t square easily with the notion of depleted energy affecting willpower. The results of the experiment were announced in January, during Heatherton’s speech accepting the leadership of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the world’s largest group of social psychologists. The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar. After performing a lab task requiring self-control, people tend to eat more candy but not other kinds of snacks, like salty, fatty potato chips. The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets. The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. It’s simple enough to imagine reforms for the parole board in Israel — like, say, restricting each judge’s shift to half a day, preferably in the morning, interspersed with frequent breaks for food and rest.