Can we have too much choice? (Part 1)
Albert Einstein thought so, at least according to popular legend. It’s often said that the great physicist kept a number of identical suits, shirts, ties and pairs of shoes in his wardrobe so that he wouldn’t have to make choices about what to wear in the morning and could instead focus his mind on the thorny challenges of General Relativity.
In fact, this story about Einstein is reported to be untrue. But would doing such a thing make sense? Evidence from a study that looked at sentencing by parole judges in Israel suggests that it might.
For parole judges, the safest and therefore easiest option when considering whether or not to grant parole to an applicant is to refuse it. This is the default choice. The authors of the study found that the likelihood of the judges granting parole was around 65% at the start of each sitting and then decreased very significantly over the course of each sitting, falling close to zero by the end. However, after a break in which the judges were able to rest and eat food, the probability of them making the harder decision to grant parole returned to around 65% at the start of the next sitting.
An interpretation of this finding is that the judges were becoming fatigued by the tough decisions that they had to make when considering each application for parole, and they eventually became too tired to make a well-considered choice and instead defaulted to the safe option of refusal.
So, for some of us at least, it’s possible that we do have so many decisions to make each day that the quality of some of those decisions suffers from decision fatigue, possibly compounded by factors such as poor diet and/or lack of good rest. It’s therefore possible that we might be expending valuable energy on less important decisions and then making poorer decisions or even just defaulting on more important decisions.
What can we do about this? Besides ensuring that we eat a proper diet and get enough good rest, here are two options:
- The next time you need to make an important decision, stop for a moment and consider whether or not that particular time would be a good one at which to make that decision in light of your energy levels, alertness, etc. Is it the end of the day and you’re tired? Or just before lunch and you’re hungry? If so, maybe it would be wise to postpone making that decision until after lunch or until tomorrow. We are often advised to “sleep on” our big decisions and I think that this is one reason why that is very good advice.
- Or, on the flipside, look out for those times when you’re thinking hard about a regular decision that really doesn’t matter much or that could be simplified. Choosing what to wear for work might be an example for some people. Deciding what to have for lunch each day might be another.
Can you identify any opportunities to choose consciously to reduce the demands on your decision-making where it doesn’t matter in order to ensure more energy is available for the important decisions? Having five outfits (that is, combinations of clothes that go together) that you rotate so as to wear each one once each week would be a much less boring variation on Einstein’s mythical wardrobe. Or you might decide to have the daily special for lunch every day, thereby ensuring that you still get variety in what you eat, whilst at the same time removing that particular decision-making burden.
And when people ask you for a decision on something, or even just for you to give them a considered opinion on something, you might first want to decide whether or not you want to expend your limited energy on that particular decision. This might be another good reason for dictatorial managers to empower their staff.