Are the endless decisions of modern life leading to decision fatigue, depleting our willpower to the point that we end up making increasingly poor, even self-destructive choices?
In an excerpt adapted from his forthcoming book, New York Times writer John Tierney makes the case that they do. The piece opens with a description of research on parole decisions made by Israeli judges, which found that the judges were dramatically more likely to free prisoners earlier in the day (before the judges had made any big decisions) or right after lunch (when they were rested and replenished), compared with other times.
The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.
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. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
But Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found an interesting twist. Her research shows that while decision fatigue does occur, it primarily affects those who believe that willpower runs out quickly.
Also see Is Being Tired as Bad as Being Drunk?, Is Burnout a Real Disorder?, How Fine is the Line Between Love and Hate? and Do You Procrastinate Because You’re Secretly Afraid Your Work Won’t be Perfect?