Choice fatigue

The NY Times‘ most-emailed list showcases an increasingly common malady called choice fatigue. I wish to expand on this question Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” (here) posed by John Tierney. His article addresses what behavioral psychologists call “delay discounting” or the tendency to choose immediate gratification over future (delayed) rewards (VIDEO here).

Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.”

Anecdotally, this phenomenon also occurs in our canine companion animals, and lab rats too. The relevant brain anatomy and neurochemicals underlying our ability to make choices are becoming clearer to scientists, and include the prefrontal cortex subregions orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. Professors Stan Floresco and  Geoffrey Schoenbaum have confirmed a role for these frontal lobe circuits, along with the hippocampus and dopamine transmission, in behaving rats faced with the decision to maximize reward (also see David Redish and Daeyeol Lee). The rats under stress often preferred a quick reward fix over waiting for a possibly larger reward at a later time. If repeated enough times, this type of “instant gratification” decision can become ingrained like  a bad habit even in rats, as discovered by Professor Bernard Balleine. Besides stress, other extrinsic factors  that favor impulsivity include early-life maternal separation (link here) and social isolation. Intrinsic vulnerabilities to impulse include people’s cardiovascular reactivity to stress and a history of substance abuse. Studies of young children reveal just how early in life humans can learn to delay immediate gratification (see this article “Teaching Self-Control, the American Way” or the WSJ here).

Tierney’s article (cited above) focused on the realm of normal decision making in healthy adults, ranging from grocery shoppers to courtroom judges. I suggest we further consider persons with ailments that impair their ability to decide, notably depression or addiction or ADHD.  According to Princeton psychologist Roy Baumeister’s new book (link here),

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there. It’s a state that fluctuates.”

We have clinical proof that behavioral therapy can help override bad habits in people. For instance, patients can practice strengthening their willpower in everyday life, and thus indirectly change a bad habit. Baumeister claims that simply, “Doing things outside of one’s comfort zone can be an end in itself.”

While doctors have no miracle cures for helping patients make better decisions, it is known that blood sugar levels are one factor involved. Other factors include the number of options available in the decision (i.e. effort), the time given to decide (i.e. delay), or the ability to rescind a choice. The novelty of the decision task (i.e. experience with similar decisions) also seems to be important, as lab monkeys were actually more impulsive with new choices (and uncertainty) than with old choices they had encountered before.

Too many sensory distractions (like listening to music while working) can also be taxing on our mental ability to decide. A recent WSJ article (“At Work, Do Headphones Really Help?“) quotes M.I.T. neuroscientist Robert Desimone,

The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center, must work harder to force itself not to process any strong verbal stimuli, such as catchy lyrics, that compete with the work you’re attempting. The more cognitive work required to screen out unwanted input, the fewer cognitive resources remain for the task at hand. And the longer you try to concentrate amid competing distractions, the worse your performance is likely to be. Attention takes mental effort, and we can get mentally tired.”

In fact, multi-tasking with technology while studying at school hinders students’ learning, as discussed in “You’ll never learn!” (<-Slate article link here). How too many choices make reading the web worse: How we read, not what we read, may be contributing to our information overload” <-link here.

Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar studies consumer choices and decision-making, and her research shows that choice overload reduces our engagement, decision quality, and satisfaction.

She gives the following steps for HOW TO MAKE BETTER CHOICES:

  1. CUT (the number of choices)- LESS IS MORE
  2. CONCRETIZE – make it vivid exactly how this result will affect your life
  3. CATEGORIZE- more categories, fewer choices
  4. CONDITION (start with the largest number of choices and pare them down to a select few).

The bottom line about decisions is that “We want to feel confident we got what we wanted. That we got it right!” There is no use having hundreds of options (be they olive oils at the grocery store, or single ladies from on-line dating sites) if we are left doubting our choice in the end. So it’s better to have fewer options and confidence in the final result than too many options and self-doubt.

For further information on  the latest decision science:

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman (interview here)

The Art of Choosing (2010) by Sheena Iyengar (VIDEO here)

The Upside of Irrationality (2010), Predictably Irrational (2008) by Dan Ariely (VIDEO here)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (2010) by Chip & Dan Heath (VIDEO here)

How We Decide (2010) by Jonah Lehrer (audio interview link here)

Willpower (2011) by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney (interview here)

“How to Short Circuit Your Reward System” video with entrepreneur Scott Belsky