≡ Menu

Avoiding Decision Fatigue

The Stanford Marshmallow Test

I have a confession to make. It isn’t a tabloid-ready exposé or delicious scandal that will have water coolers everywhere buzzing for weeks. It is a simple confession about a weakness I have. I don’t know if it will make me appear weak or less human, but it is real and I deal with it every day.

I crave information. There is always an electronic device near, which connects me to the world-wide web of information. During a recent backpacking trip, my joy knew no bounds when I got a cell signal which enabled me to do an Instagram post from the top of a mountain. Better than the Instagram post was my absolute euphoria at being able to check my email. How crazy is that!

The Marshmallow Test

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted a watershed developmental psychology experiment called the Stanford Marshmallow Test.

Plate of MarshmallowsResearchers placed children in a room with a marshmallow and gave them the choice to either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and get a bigger treat.

The experiment determined how well children handle delayed gratification and at what age they are able to control their impulses.

Though I wasn’t able to participate in the study—I would have eaten the marshmallow—I began wondering how it applied to me, as an adult, sitting on a mountain holding my phone, checking my email instead of watching a bear walk through a meadow.

Each day we are immersed in our own marshmallow experiment. Our society has taken the idea of delayed gratification and thrown it out the window. Just about anything you want, is available immediately.

Today’s Marshmallow Test

When I was young, if I wanted to know what one of my friends was doing I had to walk to the nearest phone—maybe all the way to the kitchen, because the kitchen had the only phone in our house—and dial their number using the rotary phone.

Facebook NotificationsIf I was lucky, someone at their home would pick up the phone, otherwise the phone would ring and ring, leaving me to wonder where everyone was.

Today, I can’t go ten minutes without some “friend” sharing their latest status or cute kitten photo. Information, the drug I can’t live without, is being thrown at me 24/7 whether I “like” it or not.

I’m not complaining, because as my daughter says, “Likes and prayers save lives every day.” However, the constant buzzing on my hip has re-wired my brain.

Effects of Decision Fatigue

The problem facing the working population is that all of these distractions are creating a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue occurs when faced with a series of difficult choices, the individual’s decision-making ability deteriorates and the quality of the decision is reduced.

Judges and Decision FatigueA 2011 study at Ben-Gurion University found that judges’ parole decisions were influenced by the time of day and their daily caseload.

In the study, judges who had light caseloads were more consistent in their parole decisions than those who had heavy caseloads.

The researchers discovered that judges with heavy caseloads made different decisions in the afternoon compared to rulings made on similar cases in the morning.

The Remedy for Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue affects us all. It is a function of the world we live in. It can be overcome, but it takes a little planning and some food.

The Ben-Gurion study noticed that the cases heard before a regularly scheduled break, which included a small snack and a drink, had a 20 percent chance of an approved decision compared to the 65 percent chance of those cases heard after the break.

The Takeaway

To stay sharp and make the best decisions possible requires some minor behavioral changes.  First, turn off the electronic pulses.  Each ding, tone or vibration forces you to make a decision.

Turn off the notifications and focus on what is in front of you.  Second, if you have had a stressful section of the day stand up and take a quick walk and get a drink of water before tackling the next problem.  Give your mind a chance to recharge before forcing it into action again.

Our electronic world is relentless, but it can be kept at bay.  Stop the popularity contest between your phone and the person you are with or your current task by focusing on what is in front of you, not on your hip.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have to see how long I can stare at a marshmallow.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment