Make Fewer Decisions Make Better Ones

Post date: Oct 5, 2012 3:05:01 PM

Making many mundane decisions (even if pleasant) wears down our mental energy causing us to make bad decisions as we grow weary. Pozen explores this premise in the context of President Barrack Obama's routines of simple clothing and food choices to make time for the important tasks of his day to day. As Slashdot points out, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg suggest the same and are famous for wearing the same clothes day in and out.

However, I want to focus this post on research by Vohs et al. entitled, "Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative." The authors claim that making decisions deplete the same mental resource that we need for self-control and to solve problems. Thus if you spent the day making many decisions, even tiny ones like what to wear or pleasant ones like what to have for lunch, your mental reserves become drained. They then quantify how this effects things like physical stamina, fortitude, procrastination, and arithmetic.

In one experiment the participants were given a mentally taxing product-rating task. Then they were shuttled into another room with 20 small paper cups filled with a foul tasting mixture. The subject got $0.05 for each cup that they drank, if they so chose to. Presumably drinking more requires more self-control to override the distaste. At least the participants were paid and given a free gift! The taxing mental task reduced the drinks they tended to endure – 2 cups versus 8 cups. In the next experiment, participants were randomly given a taxing task or not and then asked to submerge their arm in 1 °C water. The upshot, wearied subjects lasted 30 s compared with 60 s. I can't imagine writing that IRB request. My favorite experiment involved testing the participants to see how long they would passively wait before alerting the experimenter to equipment failure. In this experiment they were testing two things: Mental depletion and also how creating positive anticipation for a task reduced mental effort. The upshot was that alert people quickly helped out and that positive anticipation only works when only a few choices are involved. But when burdened with too many choices its mitigating effect is cancelled.

It was an enjoyable article to read with interesting tidbits such as "consumers who faced 24 options, as opposed to 6 options, were less willing to decide to buy anything at all, and those who did buy were less satisfied with their purchase." This reminds me of choice architecture in Nudge. A great book I intend to review.