decision making fatigue

August 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

In an experimental group, students were told to choose between products — pen or candle? candle or shirt? black shirt or red pen? — and then asked to hold their hand in a bath of ice water for as long as they could. In the control group, students were told to contemplate products, but not told to choose between them, and then asked to hold their hand in a bath of ice water for as long as they could. The final tally: students in the control group, who hadn’t spent time toggling between choices, were much more likely to hold out twice as long. Conclusion: will-power is a finite substance that can be exhausted in increments.

More interesting, and less academically frivolous, are the implications this has for those stuck grinding it out in subsistence poverty. If the poor have to spend so much time weighing the trade-offs between food and medicine, money and shelter, and so on and so forth, and this stressful, sapping process, cycled through day-in, day-out, depletes their decision-making energy, how are they to tackle problems in a host of larger-scale areas, such as school and work, with the same reservoirs of chutzpah possessed by a healthy, educated nineteen year old college student comfortably ensconsed in the poshest digs that daddy’s money can possibly buy?

This then is an interesting rebuttal to the argument your parents always made about how black people just don’t have enough self control to bootstrap themselves up to a respectable level and that therefore they are undeserving of all that tax revenue that’s been rerouted to pay for their rent, food, phone bills. The welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food in the check-out line becomes a bit more legible, screened through these findings.

“Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.”

The people with iron self-control are the ones that structure their lives to conserve willpower. They minimize the mental effort to make choices by scheduling gym dates with friends, instead of having to force themselves to do it every day. “The best decision makers,” it is said, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

From this NYT article.

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