Making Poor Decisions? Well, it might be because you’ve been making too many. John Tierney’s recent column in the New York Times examines a study by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University that takes a clinical look at our ability to make decisions. As it turns out our ability to perform mental tasks wears thin when repeatedly exerted and the harder choice, or the severity of the consequences, the greater the toll on our mental energy. Decision Fatigue, coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, helps explain, “why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new cars” says Tierney.
The study by Levav and Danziger took data from prisoners being granted parole in an Israeli prison and found that the time of day at which a prisoner faced a parole board gave the greatest indication of the board’s decision. After analyzing more than 1,100 decisions the researchers concluded that prisoners judged early in the morning received parole 70 percent of the time while prisoners who were judged late in the day received parole less than 10 percent of the time.
The study found that when your brain gets tired it begins to look for shortcuts in two distinct ways. One shortcut our brains take to avoid a thorough assessment of available choices is to act impulsively. The other is to simply opt out of the decision making process all together. The parole judges in the study were likely guilty of the latter. By denying a prisoner parole the judge avoided the energy intensive process of weighing the pros and cons of potentially releasing a known criminal. The study seems to suggest what many may have already suspected: legal professionals work a lot.