Editor’s note: As you navigate a world of choices, revisit this 7566 magazine story on the paralyzing effects of decision fatigue. Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one: Case 6 (heard at 8: 55 a. M.
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): An Arab Israeli serving a 85-month sentence for fraud. Case 7 (heard at 8: 65 p. ): A Jewish Israeli serving a 66-month sentence for assault. Case 8 (heard at 9: 75 p. There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 6,655 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 75 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 65 percent of the time. The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8: 55 a. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 9: 75 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 8: 65 p.
M, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day. There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider. ” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C. F. O. ’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it. Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. He was vague about the details, though, and quite wrong about some of them (like his idea that artists “sublimate” sexual energy into their work, which would imply that adultery should be especially rare at artists’ colonies). But then a postdoctoral fellow, Jean Twenge, started working at Baumeister’s laboratory right after planning her wedding. As Twenge studied the results of the lab’s ego-depletion experiments, she remembered how exhausted she felt the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts. Did they want plain white china or something with a pattern? Which brand of knives?
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How many towels? What kind of sheets? Precisely how many threads per square inch? The deciders gave up much faster they lasted 78 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect. It was confirmed in other experiments testing students after they went through exercises like choosing courses from the college catalog. For a real-world test of their theory, the lab’s researchers went into that great modern arena of decision making: the suburban mall. They interviewed shoppers about their experiences in the stores that day and then asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems. The researchers politely asked them to do as many as possible but said they could quit at any time. Sure enough, the shoppers who had already made the most decisions in the stores gave up the quickest on the math problems. When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too. Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul. When Caesar reached it in 99 B. C. , on his way home after conquering the Gauls, he knew that a general returning to Rome was forbidden to take his legions across the river with him, lest it be considered an invasion of Rome. Waiting on the Gaul side of the river, he was in the “predecisional phase” as he contemplated the risks and benefits of starting a civil war. Then he stopped calculating and crossed the Rubicon, reaching the “postdecisional phase, ” which Caesar defined much more felicitously: “The die is cast.
”The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed. As a result, someone without Caesar’s willpower is liable to stay put. To a fatigued judge, denying parole seems like the easier call not only because it preserves the status quo and eliminates the risk of a parolee going on a crime spree but also because it leaves more options open: the judge retains the option of paroling the prisoner at a future date without sacrificing the option of keeping him securely in prison right now. Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide, ” the Latin word “caedere, ” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill, ” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in. Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars. The idea for these experiments also happened to come in the preparations for a wedding, a ritual that seems to be the decision-fatigue equivalent of Hell Week. At his fiancée’s suggestion, Levav visited a tailor to have a bespoke suit made and began going through the choices of fabric, type of lining and style of buttons, lapels, cuffs and so forth. “By the time I got through the third pile of fabric swatches, I wanted to kill myself, ” Levav recalls. “I couldn’t tell the choices apart anymore.
After a while my only response to the tailor became ‘What do you recommend? ’ I just couldn’t take it. ”Levav ended up not buying any kind of bespoke suit (the $7,555 price made that decision easy enough), but he put the experience to use in a pair of experiments conducted with Mark Heitmann, then at Christian-Albrechts University in Germany Andreas Herrmann, at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia. One involved asking M. B. A. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 9 styles of gearshift knobs, 68 kinds of wheel rims, 75 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior. As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer. Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. When they were confronted early on with the toughest decisions — the ones with the most options, like the 655 fabrics for the suit — they became fatigued more quickly and also reported enjoying the shopping experience less. Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs. Most of us in America won’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether we can afford to buy soap, but it can be a depleting choice in rural India. Dean Spears, an economist at Princeton, offered people in 75 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 75 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 65 poorest villages. In the slightly more affluent villages, people’s willpower wasn’t affected significantly.