Decision Fatigue

Decision Fatigue

In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making. For instance, judges have been shown to make poorer decisions later in the day. Decision fatigue can not only results in fast and careless decisions, but even in decision paralysis where no decision is made at all. In the formal approach to decision quality management, specific techniques have been devised to help managers cope with decision fatigue.

Trade-offs, where either of two choices have positive and negative elements, are an advanced and energy consuming form of decision making. A person who is mentally depleted becomes reluctant to make trade-offs, or makes very poor choices. Jonathan Levav at Stanford University designed experiments showing how decision fatigue can leave a person vulnerable to sales and marketing strategies designed to time the sale.

Dean Spears of Princeton University has argued that decision fatigue caused by the constant need to make financial trade-offs is a major factor in trapping people in poverty. Given that financial situations force the poor to make so many trade-offs, they are left with less mental energy for other activities. Experiments have shown the interrelationship between decision fatigue and ego depletion, whereby a person’s ability for self-control against impulses decreases in the face of decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue can influence irrational impulse purchases at supermarkets. During a trip to the supermarket, trade-off decisions regarding prices and promotions can produce decision fatigue, hence by the time the shopper reaches the cash register, less willpower remains to resist impulse purchases of candy and sugared items. Sweet snacks are usually featured at the cash register because many shoppers have decision fatigue by the time they get there.

Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister has also found that it is directly tied to low glucose levels, and that replenishing them restores the ability to make effective decisions. This has been offered as an explanation for why poor shoppers are more likely to eat during their trips. George Loewenstein has suggested that the disastrous failure of men in high office to control impulses in their private lives may at times be attributed to decision fatigue stemming from the burden of day to day decision making.

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