The Key To Avoid Making Bad Decisions

Early birds are going to love this. As it turns out, science has proven that the time of day we make a decision has great impact on the decision we make. It’s called decision fatigue. As the writer states, “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.” Decision making wears us out. And the later in the day we make important decisions, the more risk averse and change resistant we become. Studies are showing that “there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control”. The more exhausted we become from making decisions, the more we become cognitive misers, unable to process multiple factors. We resort to the easiest and most comfortable answer.

Whoa! This explains why, in spite of our best intentions, my wife and I sometimes struggle to put food on the table at night. We’re both mentally exhausted – me from the hundreds of decisions in a work day and her from the thousands of decisions in a day of raising four young kids. Even giving up and electing to eat out is a challenge because it involves another decision – where to eat, which is hard to do. (We’re currently working on a pre-planned dinner agenda, which is helping.)

The implications of this are staggering.

At one level, if you have an idea to sell or a presentation to make or a job to interview for or a banker to meet, do it first thing in the morning. Like from 8:30 – 10:30 AM. If you don’t sell get people when they’re freshest, you’ll have a hard time getting them at all.

But the effects of the science go much deeper than using the clock to manipulate an outcome. Consider their comment about the poor:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

The scientists behind this study call it “ego depletion”: every decision takes from a finite store of mental energy that comprises your ego and your ability to think lucidly about a problem. Once depleted, you are more likely to make bad decisions. Think about the implications for for moral behavior. What if there was a correlation of sins committed by time of day? Now we have scientific evidence for the old saw “nothing good happens after midnight”.

What other implications do you see in this new discovery?