Decide Better—Decide Less

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Decide Better—Decide Less

Decision Fatigue

For weeks, you’ve been working to the point of exhaustion on this presentation. The PowerPoint slides are polished. Each figure in Excel is indisputable. The pitch is a paradigm of crystal-clear logic. Everything depends on your presentation. If you get the green light from the CEO, you’re on your way to a corner office. If the presentation flops, you’re on your way to the unemployment office. The CEO’s assistant proposes the following times for the presentation: 8:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., or 6:00 p.m. Which slot do you choose?

The psychologist Roy Baumeister and collaborator Jean Twenge once covered a table with hundreds of inexpensive items—from tennis balls and candles to T-shirts, chewing gum, and Coke cans. He divided his students into two groups. The first group he labeled “deciders,” the second, “non-deciders.” He told the first group: “I’m going to show you sets containing two random items and each time you have to decide which you prefer. At the end of the experiment I’ll give you one item you can take home.” They were led to believe that their choices would influence which item they get to keep. To the second group, he said: “Write down what you think about each item, and I’ll pick one and give it to you at the end.” Immediately thereafter, he asked each student to put their hand in ice cold water and hold it there as long as possible. In psychology, this is a classic method to measure willpower or self-discipline; if you have little or none, you yank your hand back out of the water very quickly. The result: The deciders pulled their hands out of the icy water much sooner than the non-deciders did. The intensive decision making had drained their willpower—an effect confirmed in many other experiments.

Making decisions is exhausting. Anyone who has ever configured a laptop online or researched a long trip—flight, hotels, activities, restaurants, weather—knows this well: After all the comparing, considering, and choosing, you are exhausted. Science calls this decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is perilous: As a consumer, you become more susceptible to advertising messages and impulse buys. As a decision maker, you are more prone to erotic seduction. Willpower is like a battery. After a while it runs out and needs to be recharged. How do you do this? By taking a break, relaxing, and eating something. Willpower plummets to zero if your blood sugar falls too low. IKEA knows this only too well: On the trek through its mazelike display areas and towering warehouse shelves, decision fatigue sets in. For this reason, its restaurants are located right in the middle of the stores. The company is willing to sacrifice some of its profit margin so that you can top up your blood sugar on Swedish treats before resuming your hunt for the perfect candlesticks.

Four prisoners in an Israeli jail petitioned the court for early release. Case 1 (scheduled for 8:50 a.m.): an Arab sentenced to thirty months in prison for fraud. Case 2 (scheduled for 1:27 p.m.): a Jew sentenced to sixteen months for assault. Case 3 (scheduled for 3:10 p.m.): a Jew sentenced to sixteen months for assault. Case 4 (scheduled for 4:35 p.m.), an Arab sentenced to thirty months for fraud. How did the judges decide? More significant than the detainees’ allegiance or the severity of their crimes was the judges’ decision fatigue. The judges granted requests 1 and 2 because their blood sugar was still high (from breakfast or lunch). However, they struck out applications 3 and 4 because they could not summon enough energy to risk the consequences of an early release. They took the easy option (the status quo) and the men remained in jail. A study of hundreds of verdicts shows that within a session, the percentage of “courageous” judicial decisions gradually drops from 65 percent to almost zero, and after a recess, returns to 65 percent. So much for the careful deliberations of Lady Justice. But, as long as you have no upcoming trials, all is not lost: You now know when to present your project to the CEO.