Making decisions is something we do every day, all day. An average person makes between 3000 and 10 000 decisions a day. Many of these decisions are made without you really noticing that you arrived at a decision. Reply to a text message? - Of course. Cross the road when the ‘Walk’ sign illuminates? - Yes or no. Or should you chance it and cross on the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign because there is very little traffic? - Yes or no. Order the same Latte as usual or try something different? – Go on you might like it, or no I already know what I like. The list goes on.
In amongst this barrage of daily decisions big and small, it turns out, there are some odd things affecting our decisions.
WHY OUR DECISION SKILLS ERODE OVER TIME
Basically, making decisions takes energy and so it stands to reason that if we constantly have to make choices and weigh the pros and cons of each it wears us down as time passes. The more decisions we make, the more tired our brain becomes. This leads us to either give less thought to our decisions or go with lower-risk, “safe” options simply to avoid the effort of thinking through a difficult decision.
This came to light via a study by A 2010 study by Shai Danziger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The study examined the results of 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons over a ten-month period. The influence of the time since each judge had taken a break from case hearings was a significant factor in the decisions they would make.
In a nutshell, the study found that judges were more likely to award parole early in the morning and immediately after having a break. As their case loads grew longer and longer leading up to a break, the chances of a prisoner being given parole diminished substantially.
This particular study and many others have provided plenty of evidence that we get worn down by constant decision-making and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for a default offer, whether they’re buying a can of beans or a new car.
For judges adjudicating parole cases, that safer, low-risk option is to deny parole. As demonstrated in Danziger’s study, this is what judges generally do when they’ve had to make a lot of decisions in a row.
So our decision-making portions of our brain works a lot like a muscle. That is, the more we work it, the more tired it gets until exhaustion finally sets in and we need a break to recover before starting again.
HOW TO FIX THIS
With a combination of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine levels, and no decision fatigue to drag your brain down, mornings are the best time to make big decisions for most of us. If you are a shift worker and you’re working nightshift then reverse this advice. Let’s just say that decision-making is best at the start of your daily routine rather than towards the end of it. If you do have to make big decisions in the latter portion of your daily working life, try taking a break to reset your brain first.
We often settle for default options (‘Ah whatever’) or let others decide for us (‘You choose, I don’t care’) because decisions are just too much work for our brains. This is even more so when there are more than two options to choose from. Make it easy for yourself and cut out extra options you don’t really need to consider. Reduce your choices down to a workable shortlist, which will make it easier to make a final decision.
WHY HUNGER EFFECTS YOUR DECISION MAKING
One odd thing about the human body is that our emotions or other bodily sensations can influence our abilities to weigh a decision.
For example, if we’re hungry, thirsty or sexually aroused, that can actually affect the decision regions of our brains. This gives us a desire for big rewards when we make choices. This can also lead us to make higher-risk choices and to crave more.
A study published in Psychological Science November 2006, called Hungry for Money: The Desire for Caloric Resources Increases the Desire for Financial Resources and Vice Versa, looked into the decisions we make when feeling the effects of hunger.
The study found that: “Fasted individuals also make riskier bets on a financial decision-making task involving lottery choices, opting for the riskier option significantly more often when fasted, and choosing the safer bet when full. This finding is supported by the animal literature, in which animals are more risk-averse when sated but risk-seeking when hungry. This is presumably an evolutionarily selected trait prompting exploration and risk-seeking when in states of hunger, which could potentially lead to the acquisition of new food sources.”
HOW TO FIX THIS
Have you ever done your weekly shopping at the supermarket on an empty stomach and got to the checkout to discover your trolley is full of chips, chocolate, salted peanuts and other nibbles and snacks and yet somehow you skipped the vegetable section? That’s your body influencing your brain to make the riskier decision for eat-now food over the less risky (Healthier) options of take it home and cook it food.
The fix here isn’t overly complex. If you need lunch or dinner, have it. Then make the big decisions that you are facing. It really goes hand in hand with our first fix above. Take a break if you’ve been dealing with the tough stuff for a while. Try to fit in a snack or a lunch break before meetings or phone calls when you know you’ll be required to make some big choices.
Decision-making can be a tough gig. There's no reason to make it any harder.