A fascinating piece by John Tierney in the NY Times explored the concept of “Decision Fatigue,” concluding that people faced with making a number of decisions do so less well as the day wears on.
In studies with Roy Baumeister, a clear correlation was shown between the quality of decisions made at a point in time and the number/difficulty of decisions subjects had been required to make beforehand.
These studies explain the anomalies in, for example, parole being granted to prisoners by a parole board – those whose applications were heard at the start of the day, or immediately following a break for nourishment, were considerably more likely to succeed that those whose applications were heard at the end of a session, or just before a break.
Car salesmen were able to increase the value of the options taken with vehicles simply by altering the order in which the options were presented: once decision fatigue started to come into play, the buyers were more inclined to simply go with the recommended/default choice, even when it was more expensive and, potentially, less suitable for their needs.
Supermarkets have long had their ‘impulse racks’ at the checkout counters, but the real reasons these work has only recently been understood – shoppers are fatigued from all the decision-making during the shopping process and so are less able to rationally decide against a tempting treat when this is put in front of them.
What transpires from the studies is that the process of decision making depletes glucose levels in the brain and that this affects the way the brain works. In essence, some areas of the brain will work better for longer: the reward centre area continues to function well, while that controlling impulses weakens. So, our buyer who has been through a number of decisions in deciding on options for the new car will look at fewer and fewer factors in coming to a decision and be more prone to impulse – for example, “those leather seats look great.”
Interestingly, it was shown that replenishment of the glucose levels quickly restored decision-making ability, so if our buyer chewed on some sweets during the process he/she might well save some money. Of course, using sweet substances for instant glucose replenishment is just a temporary solution as the glucose derived from sugar is quickly used up – that from complex carbohydrates and proteins providing a steadier supply over time – but it certainly can help in tough situations.
If you need a decision from your boss, choose your time carefully, and maybe soften him/her up with a piece of chocolate at the start of the meeting so the glucose can be absorbed before asking for a decision, unless of course the decision you want is one that does not require change to an existing situation – in which case low glucose levels will favour the status quo.
The bottom line seems to be that you should make your biggest decisions at the start of the day (assuming you have breakfast, of course!) or after a healthy meal. In board and management meetings where there are many decisions to be taken, ensure the participants are suitably nourished and their glucose levels are maintained. As the article recommended – don’t make decisions on restructuring the business at 4pm…