Decision-Making is (Mentally) Exhausting

“Everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice…. The question is, is this good news or bad news? And the answer is yes.” – Psychologist Barry Schwarz, TED Talk, July 2005

Decision neuroscience, the study of the brain as humans make decisions, is a relatively young discipline, with scientists beginning to tap into the field a little over 20 years ago. “For me, the essence of the thinking during decision making is mental simulation—you are trying to predict before you take an action what outcome may occur based on your previous experiences, or by observing and remembering the outcomes of other people’s behaviors,” Daeyeol Lee, PhD, Department of Neurobiology and Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Yale University School of Medicine said. [1]

A phenomenon related to the mental stimulation of decision making is referred to as decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is the idea that humans cannot make decision after decision without paying a biological price. Humans reach a point of mental energy depletion, resulting in the mental need to take shortcuts.

“One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through consequences,” The New York Times science columnist John Tierney writes. [2]

Decision fatigue is part of the phenomenon resulting from social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s study into ego depletion. Baumeister conducted four experiments, each one subjected participants to a exercise of willpower. In the first experiment, participants forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolate; in the second experiment participants were instructed to make a meaningful personal choice to perform a specific behavior; in the third experiment, participants were required to suppress emotion; and in the fourth experiment participants were required to perform a task requiring high self-regulation. [3] The result of each experiment was a depletion in mental energy.

“Motivations can be strong or weak, and stronger impulses are presumably more difficult to restrain; therefore, the executive function of the self presumably also operates in a strong or weak fashion, which implies that is has a dimension of strength,” Baumester writes in the study. “An exertion of this strength in self-control draws on this strength and temporarily exhausts it but it also presumably recovers after a period of rest.”

Tierney writes that once a person is mentally depleted, he or she becomes more reluctant to make trade-offs, which is a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision-making.  “To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted”.

However, there is a lot of mystery still surrounding the ego depletion and decision fatigue phenomenon. There is no quantitative value of how tiring it is to make a decision. “Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up,” writes Tierney. “Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend—these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low.” Baumesiter said, “The best decision makers are the ones who know when to not trust themselves.”

What neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a mental price to pay when making difficult or frequent decisions. Decision fatigue results in low “willpower” and a mental need to take shortcuts. One remedy for decision fatigue could be to provide a streamline the decision-making process and eliminate the unnecessary or highly taxing components of decision-making. Streamlining the decision-making process would reduce decision fatigue, and result in better, more thoughtful decisions, with no mental shortcuts needed.

Providing a streamlined decision-making process is one of the benefits of the inqiri solution. Using a structured, multi-criteria decision analysis process, supported by collective intelligence results in a better, less mentally taxing process and helps avoid mental shortcuts and decision fatigue.

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inqiri is a web application on the leading edge of cognitive science. Combining the insights of collective intelligence with the power of synthetic intelligence, inqiri helps optimize the decision-making process.

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