Friday, September 21, 2012

The More Decisions You Have To Make, The Worse You Get At It

Michael Lewis was on NPR's Fresh Air talking about his assignment hanging out with the president over six months to write about what it's like to be the president. It was published in Vanity Fair.

One comment he made caught my attention.  He said that President Obama knew of research that shows the more decisions you have to make the worse you get at making decisions.   So Obama avoids many simple decisions - like what clothes to wear, what to eat - so that he can save his decision making energy for the important decisions a president faces.  (Lewis said Obama had thrown out all but his blue and gray suits so he doesn't have to think about what he's going to wear and that someone else makes the menu.)  

I thought about this today after making decisions on the Alaska Airlines website today, taking advantage of discounted fares to LA to visit my mom.  I used up way too much decision making energy. 

It seemed a good time to check into this decision making fatigue story.  I found two interesting articles on this. First was a 2008 Scientific American article "Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain" by On Amir. 

He mentions something called executive function which includes focused activity, decision making, and will power (as in resisting temptation.)

It turns out, however, that use of executive function—a talent we all rely on throughout the day—draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity. (See here and here.) . . .

For example, in one study the researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were less likely to persist and do well in solving simple algebra problems. In another task in the same study, students who had to mark preferences about the courses they would take to satisfy their degree requirements were much more likely to procrastinate on preparing for an important test. Instead of studying, these "tired" minds engaged in distracting leisure activities.These experimental insights suggest that the brain works like a muscle: when depleted, it becomes less effective. Furthermore, we should take this knowledge into account when making decisions. If we've just spent lots of time focusing on a particular task, exercising self-control or even if we've just made lots of seemingly minor choices, then we probably shouldn't try to make a major decision. These deleterious carryover effects from a tired brain may have a strong shaping effect on our lives.
One finding was particularly relevant to how I felt booking the tickets: It's harder to make the decision than to just weigh the tradeoffs.
Why is making a determination so taxing? Evidence implicates two important components: commitment and tradeoff resolution. The first is predicated on the notion that committing to a given course requires switching from a state of deliberation to one of implementation. In other words, you have to make a transition from thinking about options to actually following through on a decision. This switch, according to Vohs, requires executive resources.
It was a pain coordinating the different days and times with commitments we have in Anchorage and getting to see my son on the trip,  and of course the different prices.  But as taxing as that was, I think actually making the decision to push the purchase button and finalizing the dates and times and transferring $900 from my credit card to Alaska Airlines seemed to use up even more energy.  Now I know it's the switch from deliberation to implementation that got to me.

 A 2011 New York Times article, "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" by John Tierney goes into the background research even further.  If this topic interests you at all, this is a good article to pursue.  Tierney starts by talking about the decisions of an Israeli parole board.  It turns out they are more likely to parole you if your case is heard early in the morning.  By the late afternoon, the odds go way down.  He explains they're fatigued by then and rather than make a mistake, they just say no.

It also turns out that glucose can help pick you up, and snacks helped the parole board somewhat.
The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets. A similar effect helps explain why many women yearn for chocolate and other sugary treats just before menstruation: their bodies are seeking a quick replacement as glucose levels fluctuate. A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control (that’s why it’s convenient to use in experiments), but it’s just a temporary solution. The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.
And it adds some information to an important question of mine:  why do some people make short term decisions while others make longer term decisions.  This is just one part of the answer, but it's interesting.
Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects. 
 That's the main reason, I guess, you're supposed to eat before going shopping.  This physiological information about how the body is affected by decision making adds a lot to planning good decisions.
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions. 
 I've always known that signing up for a PE class made it much easier to exercise more faithfully.  And that resting and eating well are important.  Knowing what causes these problems, means for us, like it does for the president, that we can avoid unnecessary taxing of our executive function:
“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
 There is A LOT more interesting stuff in the Tierney's whole article

1 comment:

  1. I read that article in Vanity Fair (which has far more excellent articles than you'd think, but the font is a tad wee...) just yesterday. That reducing one's trivial choice decisions also struck me as seminal to productive living. If you don't have any goals in life, the trivial becomes your goal I guess -- for years and years my artist husband has worn the same thing every single day. Black heavy-cotton, long-sleeved shirts and jeans. He buys a dozen at a time. My working clothes are also limited.

    As for other people noticing, when is the last time you took note of what anybody wears. Close your eyes now and try to picture what your friend, partner, spouse is wearing right now, as they sit across from you at breakfast?

    Again and again I am impressed with the self-awareness and calm authentic demeanor of Pres. Obama. Becoming President didn't build his character it revealed it (as Michele Obama said in her convention speech -- an old adage but a great one).

    That he would quote research on the subject of decision-making also shows the depth of his commitment to his job. We are lucky to have him at the helm of a very wobbly ship with barking-mad passengers hell-bent on up-ending it (to suicidally get rid of the Captain).

    In a sea of icebergs, why would their course of action be to hit them? We are still suffering from 8 years of GOP economics & three more of Tea Party obstructionism -- haven't we? that the polls until this week have been SO close just reinforces my opinion of many Americans as fact-challenged and willfully-ignorant racists.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.