Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Freedom From Choice Is What You Need :: Open Thread

A fascinating article by John Tierney appeared in The New York Times Magazine that discussed "decision fatigue": how the more decisions you're forced to make the worse you get at doing so. The article begins with the results of a study that revealed that what time of day prisoners appeared before a parole board had a huge impact on whether or not they were granted freedom. The earlier the parole board meeting was, the much great the chances were the judges would let the prisoner walk:
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. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

No wonder Bush let Cheney make so many of his executive decisions for him! :-p

In study after study, the article reveals how researchers have shown that 1) making many decisions wears down not only your energy level, but your will power; and 2) that poor people actually have a greater drain on their will power (due to lack of resources to choose more casually) and that results in a vicious cycle of behaviors that reinforce poverty.

Ironically (and one of the reasons dieting remains perhaps the single toughest will power challenge for people otherwise in control of their lives), the fastest cure for decision fatigue seems to be an injection of glucose:
[R]esearchers set out to test something called the Mardi Gras theory — the notion that you could build up willpower by first indulging yourself in pleasure, the way Mardi Gras feasters do just before the rigors of Lent. In place of a Fat Tuesday breakfast, the chefs in the lab at Florida State whipped up lusciously thick milkshakes for a group of subjects who were resting in between two laboratory tasks requiring willpower. Sure enough, the delicious shakes seemed to strengthen willpower by helping people perform better than expected on the next task. So far, so good. But the experiment also included a control group of people who were fed a tasteless concoction of low-fat dairy glop. It provided them with no pleasure, yet it produced similar improvements in self-control. The Mardi Gras theory looked wrong. Besides tragically removing an excuse for romping down the streets of New Orleans, the result was embarrassing for the researchers. Matthew Gailliot, the graduate student who ran the study, stood looking down at his shoes as he told [his professor, the renown social psychologist Roy F.] Baumeister about the fiasco.

Baumeister tried to be optimistic. Maybe the study wasn’t a failure. Something had happened, after all. Even the tasteless glop had done the job, but how? If it wasn’t the pleasure, could it be the calories? At first the idea seemed a bit daft. For decades, psychologists had been studying performance on mental tasks without worrying much about the results being affected by dairy-product consumption. They liked to envision the human mind as a computer, focusing on the way it processed information. In their eagerness to chart the human equivalent of the computer’s chips and circuits, most psychologists neglected one mundane but essential part of the machine: the power supply. The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff. The ego-depletion effect was even demonstrated with dogs in two studies by Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky. After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes, the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.

Tierney points out the bad news that this reveals for dieters:

The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:

1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.

2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

Obviously, the more you succeed (whether in the corporate world, or an art career, or simply in raising a family to thrive), the more decisions you're faced with. Even if you're not all that successful, but simply trying to become so, the decisions you're forced to make keep piling up. I used to think the stress I feel was coming from the weight the possible results of my decisions (what if I'm choosing incorrectly??). This article suggests the stress is also from the process of just making decisions themselves, regardless of whether the consequences would really be so dire:
[One study] was conducted at German car dealerships, where customers ordered options for their new sedans. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

This is potentially evil science, but I totally understand the impulse to choose default. There are days when, quite frankly, I'm tempted to just let a Magic 8 Ball make my late afternoon decisions for me.

Most fascinating--and this probably plays a role in the much touted findings that intense computer use actually rewires one's brain, making it more difficult to concentrate (kind of the same feeling you have when you simply can't choose anymore)--is how access to the internet actually increases your risk of decision fatigue:
We have no way of knowing how much our ancestors exercised self-control in the days before BlackBerrys and social psychologists, but it seems likely that many of them were under less ego-depleting strain. When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices. Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant. A typical computer user looks at more than three dozen Web sites a day and gets fatigued by the continual decision making — whether to keep working on a project, check out TMZ, follow a link to YouTube or buy something on Amazon.
I recall periods of my life when there were fewer choices to be made (when I lived in other countries and my shopping or entertainment and/or Internet options were much more limited). I do recall reading more (something I can't do if mentally exhausted), writing more (yes, I know, I write too much now), and generally feeling more creative. Fewer decisions actually led to better decisions, more consistently.

What that all means may be entirely moot. I can attempt to limit my minor decision-making needs (by following Einstein's example, perhaps, and always wearing the exact same outfit every day), but I really can't see the number of choices I'll need to make over the next decade or so, at least, becoming fewer. Quite the opposite.

Speaking of Einstein, though, I saw this quote by him the other day that may just hold a viable key to dealing with the increasing mountain of decisions:
“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
I'm not sure why it is, but wonderment (choosing to view the things around you as miracles) seems to work in much the same way a jolt of glucose does to restore the power and will to keep on deciding. Consider this an open thread on making better decisions.

Labels: decision making, open thread


Blogger Julie Sadler said...

Fascinating stuff Ed! I am so glad I made the decision to read this post!

8/17/2011 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...on making better decisions

I think many of these studies point to a similar thread - that the inability to get to the decision is based upon the capacity to maintain a limited number of priorities (less 7-9 I think it was)- too many options - and you can't keep the list of priorities in mind and so one angonizes over "is this factor crucial or not - I can't find it on the list of priorities .. what to do -what to do" It isn't so much better decision making thats key, as getting to the point to make those decisions.

I think it holds true for creative endeavours too - keep focused (IE limit the number of themes/ideas to a managable number of an imagined "priority list" and people can then grasp the art/article/artifact . Even in design the more articulated the problem to be solved, the more creative freedom one has to address the specific problem on hand.

The sucrose aspect is fascinating - maybe it just removes another competing list of priorities so we can better handle the specific list for the decision at hand. (if we can't handle long lists of priorities, then a long list of lists has gotta be problematic too)

Politicians seem to have recognized this 'limit the options' to get their "message" across, while the marketers do the opposite, describe the competitions offering as too complex so that their simple offering (even if its a worse one) is the one most likely to be chosen.

8/17/2011 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I'm just wondering how my evening cocktails figure into all this.

8/17/2011 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, are you trying to say that you've been attempting to go on a diet?

p.s.- good question, Cathy!

8/17/2011 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm just wondering how my evening cocktails figure into all this.

Precisely why I narrowed down my options to the best single malt on the shelf! :-)

8/17/2011 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Peye said...

...choose Ron Paul...(subliminal message meant to over-ride the forthcoming campaign of lies by the establishment candidates, and therefore a fake choice resulting in a continuation of the status quo as planned)...choose Ron Paul...

8/17/2011 10:32:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Ed, you've emboldened me. From now on, only the finest boxed wine and chocolate ice cream for lunch without exception. My brain is doing a little dance.

8/18/2011 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When all else fails I paint it black and pop 2 Xanax, kick back in the Barcalounger and listen to this Sneaker Pimps Song (six underground). on a endless loop..

8/18/2011 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Thank you Ed. Enlightening post. Some days I'm so exhausted just from having to decide what to do that day, that I end up doing nothing. Now I understand the reason. :)

8/22/2011 01:48:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I love your conclusion, Ed! Wonder is energy, indeed!

Have a great "summer break."

8/22/2011 03:49:00 PM  

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