How to Avoid “Decision Fatigue”

September 9th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

New research suggests making the right choice is easier in the morning.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

You may not be a morning person, but the “decider” in you decidedly is. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine suggests that our ability to make good choices deteriorates throughout the day. Social psychologists even recommend conserving the choices you have to make in a day, or saving any big decision-making for the morning.

John Tierney, science columnist for the Times Magazine and co-author of the upcoming book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,labels the late-day lapse in judgment “decision fatigue.” Tierney writes that, “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.” He goes on to say that, “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”

One experiment in decision fatigue had shoppers at a suburban mall try to solve simple arithmetic problems. Those who had already spent a day making decisive purchases gave up most quickly on the elementary equations. “When you shop till you drop,” Tierney explains, “your willpower drops, too.”

But an inability to solve math problems after a day of shopping is hardly the most sinister consequence of decision fatigue. According to one study of more than 1,100 decisions made by parole judges over one year, prisoners who appeared in the morning were paroled about 70 percent of the time, while those in the late afternoon were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

Our ability to make good decisions falls victim to plunging glucose levels, writes Tierney. In the case of the parolees, those who appeared at the end of the day and right before lunch fared worse than those after mealtimes and in the morning.

“Decision fatigue” is also cruel to those trying to lose weight. Tierney calls their predicament a “nutritional catch-22” in that, “In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.” Dieters start the day with good intentions and strong wills, Tierney writes, but by the end of the day, their brains run out of the energy needed to fuel good decision-making.

The research even suggests that decision fatigue could contribute to the cycle of poverty. Social psychologists claim that throughout the day, those with lower incomes have to make more decisions than the affluent, who don’t consider the financial impact of each decision. As a result, impoverished people experience increased mental exhaustion, which, under the decision-fatigue hypothesis, can make it more difficult to choose to eat well, stop smoking, study or work even more hours. 

Fortunately, researchers also provide solutions to the decision-fatigue problem. John Grohol, founder of the website Psych Central, recommends that important decisions be made in the morning, or that those made in the evening be reconsidered over breakfast. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, with whom Tierney wrote Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength, suggests that those with the best self-control actually preserve their willpower throughout the day; they avoid back-to-back meetings and all-you-can-buffets, for example.

How do you plan to avoid decision fatigue? Have you ever made a decision late in the day that you regretted the next morning?