We make bad decisions every day. Too harsh? Let me rephrase: We make a lot of choices every day. Many of those are foolish and often, regrettable. Before I repel you forever, note that you’re in good company. From politicians to judges to sportsperson, everyone makes bad choices every day.
A policeman mistakes his gun for a taser and kills an innocent, non-compliant man. Doctors often fail to wash their hands before examining a medical patient. A rising politician uses his work phone to send sexually explicit messages and jeopardises his career. These are true stories and we don’t blame them for their irrational actions. Because we can put all the blame on their brain.
The science behind most of such poor decisions is called decision fatigue. Yes, just like muscle fatigue. After a pumped up session at the gym, your muscles become sore and give in. The brain experiences the same fatigue after a long day or a series of decisions and tends to give in to easier and sometimes, more regrettable options.
This is too much!!
An experiment conducted by Neuroscientist, Paul Glimcher, asked participants to choose a chocolate from a group that also had their favourite chocolate bar. When the group was of three bars, people picked their favourite one. However, when the group had 20 bars including their favourite one, people struggled to make a choice. In fact, some of them didn’t choose their favourite!
You see, our neurons though 2% of our body mass, consume 20% of our metabolic energy. They are extremely energy-hungry. The more effort we put in making decisions, the more drained we feel. You might say that the choice is just to pick one bar. Yes, but the overwhelming variety trips your mental circuit.
Picking one chocolate from three is not one decision. It is actually three – two to say No and one to say Yes. With 20 candy bars, it’s 20 decisions, if not more. Such a number of decisions will eventually leave your battery (will power) drained and exhausted and you’ll be hitting your decision fatigue in no time. In such a scenario, we often lose sight of what we like and what will benefit us and give in to picking up just about anything.
Avoiding is also a choice
After reading about how our brain functions and how we end up making bad choices, we might be inclined to just avoiding the choice. For example: The fight with your temptation to have chocolate is going to run out of fuel at some point and you’ll eat it.
Let’s take the example of shopping. A huge sale is going on and you’ve passed many times in front of the store reminding yourself that you don’t need the item. Another part of you is also telling you that you may never get the same discount again. This constant stress of trade-off will force you to give in and shop a little, even if you had to use your credit card. The same thing was found in this study.
Look at your will power like a battery. With each decision you make, you use it up a little. Avoiding making a decision (handing over the responsibility to someone else) or postponing the decision time is also a decision consuming your will power.
The ‘Brainshift’ that makes us look like fools
Two neurologists, Robert Pearl and George York, from the University of California Davis, combed through brain-scanning studies and decades of psychological literature to understand this. They noticed that in some situations, our subconscious brain will alter our perception of the world in a way that contradicts objective reality, and so, what we see and hear is distorted. They called it brainshift and it is completely unrelated to our IQ, past behaviours or morals. If fact, it’s so subtle that we may not even notice it happening let alone control it.
Fear or pleasure?
Fear and pleasure, our most basic drives are also the culprits behind brainshift. Pearl and York concluded that our brain loses its objectivity when experiencing high anxiety and when its reward centres are triggered. Peer pressure also plays a significant role here forcing us to conform to a norm either out of the fear of being the odd one out or the reward of being considered at par with everyone.
You ask a child if she’d jump into an ocean from a cliff if all her friends are doing so. The logical and most frequent answer would be no. You position the child in the exact scenario and she’d be tempted to follow suit. That is her perception altered from a dangerous situation to a thrilling experience where the fear of death is replaced by the reward of experience.
Towards better decisions
The first step to making better decisions is self-awareness. We must know our fears, desires and our weaknesses that may push us to make poor decisions. If you feel you may not be in the right state of mind to make an objective decision, rope in an expert or call in your team and ask their counsel.
The second step is to keep your neurons energised by eating healthy, high-energy foods.
The third step is to simplify decision making. This can be done by limiting the options and focusing on the most important to-dos first.
Read this curated list of 11 great ways to combat decision fatigue in the short and long term. Check out our Better Living series to lead an intentional life.