How To Make Good Decisions In a World of Endless Choices
Consider first… Barry Schwartz opens his book “The Paradox of Choice” with the visualization of a supermarket shelved with 85 different types and brands of crackers sitting next to 285 different types of cookies.
The magnitude of choices a consumer faces while walking down the aisle of a typical grocery store borders on the absurd. Consumers are inundated with choices regarding ingredients, flavors, quantity, calories, characteristics that enhance a product, things removed from a product, colors, sizes, not to mention the packaging details.
Schwartz argues and that we are immobilized in our lives by the sheer number of choices that we face on a daily basis.
Consider next…Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has spent his career studying the effects of decision-making on individuals. Baumeister has created a paradigm relating decision-making to psychological energy.
Stemming from Freudian theory, Baumeister describes a store of psychic energy that can be dedicated to the complex process of making decisions. Each decision made depletes that energy store until the individual eventually suffers from what Baumeister coined “decision fatigue”.
Imagine for example, two shoppers faced with the decision of what type of cookie to buy. Baumeister’s model suggests that the shopper facing the more complex decision making process in choosing the cookie will have a higher depletion of their energy allocated towards overall decision making.
If shopper one faces the 285 choices and must pick the best cookie without parameters that narrow the choice, he will become more depleted than shopper two whose choices are already narrowed to chocolate chip cookies in 100 calorie packs.
The experience for shopper one consists of creating a comparison of cookies based on features that are analyzed as they are discovered during the decision making process. This takes a considerable amount of mental energy allocated to the task of analysis and decision.
Shopper two, on the other hand, is able to instantly narrow his focus from 285 potential cookies down to a handful of cookie candidates.
The decision is quick and does not take a considerable amount of mental energy that can remain within storage and allocated to a decision later.
Scientific evidence supporting the decision fatigue paradigm was found by Todd Heatherton, a colleague of Baumeister. Heatherton evaluated the brain scans of 45 female dieters who were put through a series of exercises to drain mental energy.
This scans showed that after going through the ego depletion exercises, the reward center of the brain showed increased activity, while the impulse control center, the amygdala, showed decreased activity. Heatherton further describes how the administration of glucose to the subjects reversed the effects of the ego depletion, restoring activity to the impulse control centers of the brain.
Basically, there is physical evidence that we succumb to immediate gratification when we become mentally fatigued, rather than continue to rely on our higher functioning cognitive centers.
The effects of decision fatigue can be detrimental to those experiencing it. When fatigue sets in Baumeister claims that people may become reckless in order to speed through the decision-making process. The goal becomes making any decision to move on rather than making the best decision for the circumstance.
The other potential danger is that ambivalence may set in and the no decision is made as a strategy to avoid expending any more mental energy. This is a type of cognitive conservation is akin to energy hoarding. Avoiding making the decision becomes the decision.
There are several strategies that a person can employ in order to ensure that the decisions they are making our sound. The key features of good decision making based on Baumeister’s paradigm relate to schedules, setting of parameters, and understanding personal limitations.
Schedules are a key component to good decision making in two ways. First, creating predictable schedules throughout your day can limit the number of decisions that one has to make. If a person knows that exercise is included in his schedule had a specific time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there is no decision to be made that will deplete mental stores of energy.
If the person has to decide when would be the best time to exercise during the week, they must go through an evaluative process relating to scheduling options that can contribute to decision fatigue.
Eliminating the small decisions that crop up through the day and such as when, where and what to eat for lunch or when to exercise, can help preserve the energy stores for larger decisions.
Schedules are also important because there are optimal times throughout the day for decision-making. These times are based on Heatherton’s studies of sugar levels in combination with Baumeister’s studies. The best time to make complex or important decisions is when mental energy is at its highest and the brain is functioning physically and chemically at its maximum potential.
Scheduling decision-making meetings for early morning and ensuring nutritious and adequate breakfasts would be optimal for decision-making. Post lunch meetings would be better than late afternoon or evening meetings when decision fatigue may be setting in.
Setting parameters for decision-making can also ease the process and ensure that decision fatigue is postponed as long as possible. When setting parameters for the decision, it is important first to know exactly what the problem being solved or the decision being considered is about.
When there is ambiguity relating to the decision being made, it is difficult to sort through the variables impacting the process. Knowing for example that the cookies will be taken to a party where there may be people with peanut allergies rather than used for personal consumption can help define the decision parameters and narrow the number of variables impacting the decision.
Ultimately, the more narrow the decision parameters, the less draining on the mental energy stores.
Having a clear understanding of personal limitations relating to decision-making is important to avoiding poor choices. This can be seen in literature relating to consumer behavior.
Stanford Professor Jonathan Levav conducted a variety of experiments that showed how decision fatigue can leave a consumer vulnerable to marketers who have studied the art of up-selling.
By timing decisions relating to expensive add-ons after decision fatigue has set in, consumers will acquiesce to the opinions of the salesperson. This corresponds to the process of risk taking and decision avoidance found by Baumeister.
As a consumer it is important to recognize the personal signs of decision fatigue and be willing to walk away from what can otherwise become expensive overbuying.
By recognizing personal imitations and adjusting decision-making processes accordingly, an individual can avoid buyer’s remorse and ensure that they are not falling prey to sales and marketing strategies.
To decide or not decide: that is the question.
When considering important decisions, it is important to recognize that there is science behind the process. Maximizing good decisions can be achieved through scheduling, clearly defined questions and parameters, and knowing oneself well enough to recognize the signs of decision fatigue.
Research by Baumeister and his colleagues gives us much food for thought. One thing is clearly advised: don’t sign any contracts or make any life changing decisions late in the day on an empty stomach!
Image source: Randy Le’Moine Photography