Sleep longer or go to class; chocolate or vanilla; Coke or Sprite; iced or hot; soy or nonfat; burger or burrito; chicken or beef: everyday, we are bombarded with a plethora of options. Having many choices is typically considered a good thing, but according to recent findings, that may not be the case anymore. And even though our ability to weigh choices is advantageous, researchers have found that it can create serious liabilities. They discovered that people faced with numerous selections, whether good or bad, were not only more fatigued, but were also far less productive. These participants found it difficult to maintain focus, and finish tasks.
Findings were based on several experiments, including 328 participants and 58 customers, at a shopping mall, which were designed to test exactly how the act of choosing or not choosing influences our ability to remain productive. In one experiment, some participants were asked to make important choices about college coursework, class materials or consumer products, while others considered various options without making such decisions. The participants also had to place their hands in ice water or finish a healthy, but unpleasant drink. The ones who had made their decisions had a harder time staying focused and finishing tasks than those who just had to think about their options.
In another experiment, meant to examine skills and concentration, participants were given math problems to study for an upcoming test. The ones who previously made a decision concerning college coursework were more distracted and had more errors on the study’s math test than the participants who did not make such decisions. The decision makers spent less time solving the problems and more time being distracted, such as reading magazines or playing video games.
To validate these findings, researchers conducted a field test at a shopping mall. Age, race, gender, ethnicity and the time spent shopping were controlled and the shoppers were forced to recount the amount of decisions they had made earlier that day while shopping. They were then asked to solve simple arithmetic problems. What were the results? The more decisions the shoppers had made earlier in the day, the more blunders they made when they attempted to solve problems.
Kathleen D. Vohs, the study’s lead author and a member of the University of Minnesota’s marketing department, concluded that making many decisions depletes a precious resource within the human mind. She believes that maintaining focus while completing an unpleasant task or solving problems was a lot more difficult for those who had made choices than those who had not. It did not matter whether people were told that they were going to make a choice or asked to make it spontaneously, nor did it matter if the decision was going to have a consequence or not.
The results were consistent; weighing the options was not especially taxing, it was making the actual decision. And this pattern was found in a laboratory, classroom and shopping mall.
A significant shift in mental programming occurs at the same time a choice is made, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. And this mental shift seems to be the reason for mental fatigue.
But what about the lighter, more enjoyable decisions we don’t mind making during the day? Do those affect our mental acuity just the same? In their last experiment, researchers determined that making a few “fun” decisions, such as spending a couple of minutes selecting items for a gift registry, was less mentally draining than when participants spent more minutes (12 compared to four) doing the same task. The bottom line is that no matter what kind of decision, enjoyable or not, our cognitive functions are depleted more and more with each choice we make. So now you can explain to your professor why you have such a hard time paying attention—you decided to get up, get ready and go to class this morning.