Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tired of making decisions?

Why is it so hard to diet? More generally speaking: Why is it sometimes so hard to resist temptations? Why do we often make bad financial decisions? Why do we sometimes buy things that don’t exactly fulfil our needs? Or, again more generally speaking: Why are we sometimes so vulnerable to marketers’ strategies? What does having to save money when shopping have to do with poor achievement at school and poor health? And what do all these questions have to do with each other? Willpower is the link.

Researchers Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues found that decision making is tiring and that the more mentally exhausted people are with respect to decision making, the poorer the quality of their decisions is. The researchers see the reason for this in the fact that decision making requires willpower or self-control. Exerting self-control consumes mental energy, and the store of mental energy is finite. They see a way of recharging the energy store in providing the brain with glucose.

Professor Baumeister and science columnist John Tierney wrote a book on the topic: “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. John Tierney outlines the contents of the book in a New York Times op-ed column.

Why is making a decision so energy-consuming? The researchers hold the opinion that it is because making a decision means eliminating options. When not mentally depleted, people are willing to deal with the trade-offs they have to make after decisions. If they are tired already, they won’t be. And here the “cognitive miser” already described by Keith E. Stanovich (outlined in a former post) comes back into the game: trying to hoard their energy, people use heuristics to make their decisions or let others decide for themselves. They consider only the short-term consequences, but not the long-term ones. And they choose the easiest option, no matter whether it is really a good one.

This effect has far-reaching consequences. For example, as poor people have to make a lot of decisions whenever it comes to money, some researchers conclude that they have less willpower at their disposal for other important issues in their lives. This results, in their view, in poor achievement at school, divorce, crime, alcoholism, and poor health.

What does this mean? We better not make important decisions at the end of the day, when we already have many decisions behind us, but rather in the morning. We might also want to make sure we have enough glucose available for our brains, so eat something. And we can reduce the number of decisions we have to make by following daily routines or making plans so that we don’t have to decide spontaneously.

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