Tired Brain? The Psychology of Decision Fatigue

Ever thought that “choice” could be the most difficult thing in life? The complexity of our existence itself is based on our choices. You get it now? Each of us makes millions of decisions – happy, difficult, challenging – that affect us in our lifetime. In a globalised world, our choices have grown exponentially — from diverse products we use to the kind of homes we want to live in, the smartphones we want to use, the cars we want to own, the colour of our hair or the food we want to order. We have numerous options all around us! 

But, have all these choices made our life easier or messier? While you are thinking about it, here’s an example: Remember the telephone in olden days? The black box with the dial served no other purpose than making calls, and that did us just fine! In contrast, anyone who enters a phone store today runs the risk of being flooded by an avalanche of brands, models, features and subscriber plan options. Well, how can you be sure you are making the right choice? And yet, we believe that selection is the yardstick of progress. 

Let us consider that you are at a smartphone store and you have gone through 20 different models from various brands. You are bound to feel drained after some time. What happens in the whole process is that every time you make a decision, your brain and your willpower are being used up. This is similar to doing another rep in the gym. While abundance makes you giddy, there is a limit to it! When it is exceeded, a multiplicity of choices destroy the quality of life. 

This is called the “paradox of choice.” In other words, when your willpower to make decisions depletes, you are facing “decision fatigue.” 

What is Decision Fatigue?

Why some successful people wear the same clothes every day? Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs belonged to this tribe! Here’s what goes behind the idea of choosing to wear the same clothes every day. For instance: I, as a CEO, have to make two decisions. One — whether to wear white shoes, red or brown ones and Second — whether I should hire a sales representative for my company or slog on my own? 

In both scenarios, I have to make a decision. Yet, one has no purpose while the other one could have a great outcome for me personally and my company, business-wise. Let’s just say, I do not have to go through the hassle of choosing the shoes and decide to wear the same ones every day, my decision-making capability and willpower could be saved for another crucial decision which needs my attention. That way, I’m not only saving up the energy I spend but also avoid getting fatigued easily. Here’s the truth: All decisions zap the same amount of brainpower — it doesn’t matter if it’s choosing your outfit or making an investment decision, it’s all the same decision-making energy. 

Here’s another example of how a large selection leads to inner paralysis. In a research experiment, psychologist Barry Schwartz worked with a supermarket to set up a stand where customers could sample 24 varieties of jelly. They could try as many as they liked and then buy them at a discount. The next day, the owners carried out the same experiment with only six flavours. The result? They sold ten times more jelly on Day 2. Why? With such a wide range, customers could not come to a decision, so they bought nothing. The experiment was repeated several times with different products. The results were always the same.

Second, a broader selection leads to poorer decisions. How? Consider online dating as an example. If you ask young people what is important in a life partner, they blurt out all the usual qualities: intelligence, good manners, warmth, the ability to listen, a sense of humour and physical attractiveness. But do they actually take these criteria into account when choosing someone from the countless options they have? It has been proven that the stress caused by this mind-boggling variety is so large that the brain reduces the decision to one single criterion: physical attractiveness. The consequences of this selection process you already know – perhaps even from personal experience. 

Therefore, a large selection usually leads to discontent. How can you be sure you are making the right choice when 200 options surround you? The answer is: you cannot. The more choice you have, the more unsure and perhaps, dissatisfied you are afterwards.

The science behind a tried brain

To answer these questions, a team of neuroscientists, conducted research on how the brain deals with uncertainty when making decisions was carried out. Let’s go back to the lighter here for a moment. To decide whether you want to continue flicking it, you must first decide whether there is a flame or not? That activates the regions in your brain responsible for processing sensory information such as sight or touch. 

Imagine you have just flicked a lighter. If you don’t see the flame, you will naturally try a second time. If after the second attempt it does not strike a flame, you will repeat your action again and again until it does. Eventually, you’ll see the flame and you’ll know that your lighter works. But what if it doesn’t? How long are you going to flick the lighter until you decide to give up?

So, you may feel happy when you see the flame or just surprised if you don’t. Here’s the thing about the brain in such a situation: When you see the flame, the reward circuit of your brain releases dopamine, motivating you to take your next action. But, when you don’t see the flame, you keep wondering whether there is enough gas or you should just stop flicking it. Either way, what happens as a consequence is that the frontal areas of the brain, which are responsible for your cognitive skill, such as problem-solving and judgement, may help you then. Your frontal cortex (of the brain) will help you control your actions and how much time you are willing to spend on flicking the lighter. 

If you want to continue pursuing it stubbornly, then serotonin (a hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness) comes in handy as it boosts your patience and persistence. However, in the process of using up so much energy, you tend to impair your self-regulation or self-control. 

Ways to overcome decision fatigue

Given that we are faced with decision fatigue every day, can we reduce or overcome it? What can we do? 

  1. Plan: Some tasks require spur of the moment decisions and they could be very important. But, the less important tasks, could always be planned the night before. When you make these less-than-3-minute-decisions in advance, it saves up your willpower the next day for crucial decisions. 
  2. Prioritise: Write down the order of priority of your tasks from High Priority to Low Priority tasks. Do the most important thing on your list at the beginning of your day ideally so that you can get it out of your way. This will not only keep you motivated and drive you but also help you manage your time better. 
  3. Simplify: Most of the decisions we make sometimes are totally insignificant to us. Eliminate those and simplify your life by choosing what is important to you. By simplifying and decluttering, you amplify your energy on things that matter the most to you. It could be satisfying as well as personally rewarding.  
  4. Eat & Sleep well: Better decision-making is a result of eating well and having enough sleep. When you want to do better, you begin making the right food choices, eventually disciplining yourself to get a good night’s sleep too! 

Eventually, it is up to us to realise that we can never make a perfect decision. Aiming for this, given the flood of possibilities, is a form of irrational perfectionism. Instead, learn to love a ‘good’ choice. In this age of unlimited variety, rather the opposite is true: “Good enough is the true optimum”, like Barry Schwartz enlightens!