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Decision Fatigue: What It Is And What You Can Do About It

We make thousands of choices each day: What to wear, what to eat, where to park.

New research shows making too many decisions can be exhausting, but does it lead to making bad choices? 

Making Too Many Decisions Leads To Decision Fatigue

Mary Ellen Diekhoff spends most of her days making decisions about other people’s lives.

As a Monroe County Circuit Court Judge, she reviews cases filed in her court and sets hearings.  She decides who goes to jail and for how long.

“I have a criminal docket so I preside over cases, misdemeanors, felonies, and traffic infractions, and I also preside over the Monroe county drug treatment court,” Diekhoff says.

Each case includes dozens of factors – some days, she makes hundreds of decisions, even before lunch.

“It depends upon what kind of day it is,” Diekhoff says. “If it is a misdemeanor pre-trial day, I could hear 40-60 cases. If it’s a felony pre-trial day I could hear probably 30-40 cases if they’re pre-trials.”

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the decisions of judges in Israel when considering parole. It found that the more decisions the judges had made, the more likely they were to keep the status quo – meaning, they were less likely to grant parole.

This is called “decision fatigue” – the idea that cognitive resources become depleted if someone makes too many decisions.

IU Professors Study Decision Making And The Brain

Two Indiana University professors say there is plenty of scientific evidence to support the idea of decision fatigue – and its potential consequences.

Ed Hirt and Peter Todd are Professors in Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Hirt studies mental depletion. He says the point where someone is likely to experience decision fatigue depends on how they think about decision making.

So if someone enjoys deciding what to watch on TV – but tires of deciding what to eat – they are less likely to become fatigued while channel surfing.

“It does create a situation where it becomes very difficult to maintain a certain level of expertise when it comes to subsequent kind of tasks,” Hirt says. “And usually you see some kind of undermining of people’s performance.”

The Israeli judge study also includes data on the judge’s eating habits, and suggests blood glucose levels may affect the decisions made – something Todd concludes in his research on food and the brain.

“I present the possibility that it could be the behavior of the judges is related to how long it’s been since they’ve eaten,” Todd says. “That’s what the common interpretation in the press has been.”

Judge Says Study Is Oversimplified

Though Judge Diekhoff admits growing tired of making decisions.

“Yes, in fact there will be times when my husband will say what do you want for dinner or where do you want to go for dinner and I’ll say I’ve been making decisions all day, you decide.”

She says the study is oversimplified because it does not consider all the factors in a judge’s decision.

“For instance, you could have a case where you have four defendants – they could all be charged with the exact same criminal offense,” Diekhoff says. “You could have one at 9 a.m., one at 11 a.m., one at 1:30 p.m. and one at 4 p.m. Are you going to get different sentences and results?”

Diekhoff says yes, but not because of how many decisions she’s already made, but because of a number of other factors.

“Because you’re talking about, whether or not there were victims, whether or not there were aggravating factors, mitigating factors, the age of the defendant, where the crime took place, how the crime took place,” Diekhoff says.

Researchers point out decision fatigue doesn’t necessarily mean making bad choices, you just may be more likely to fall back on default decisions.

Todd says default decisions and decision fatigue are related, and can have negative consequences when making more complicated decisions.

“But the default decisions will happen more when there’s time pressure or where you’ve gotten tired and don’t have the mental energy to put into thinking more deeply about the situation or gathering more information to make your choice,” Todd says. 

So What Can Be Done?

The Israeli judge study shows that decision fatigue can occur, but it also discusses ways people can battle it.

There isn’t one specific way to battle decision fatigue. It’s different for everyone, so they advise being aware of when you need to take breaks, and doing what makes you feel most refreshed.

Judge Diekhoff says she makes sure to take breaks throughout her day to stay fresh.

“Although sometimes I do wish I had a crystal ball to predict, you know, especially if you’re going to put somebody on probation or let someone out of jail that you had a crystal ball that would say, ‘its fine. They’ll be fine.  Everyone is safe.  The community will be safe.’  That would be helpful.”

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