In a 2011 study, researchers monitored a group of judges determining whether or not to provide imprisoned prisoners a chance at parole.
Logically, one may anticipate items like an imprisoned person’s offense, existing term, and current conduct to be the key concerns. But although those specifics were dutifully scrutinized, one element had a very substantial impact: the time of day.
Imprisoned persons who appeared with a jury in the morning were considerably more likely to get parole compared to those whose cases were considered in the afternoon, even if their offenses and sentences were essentially similar.
This discovery may sound weird, but the researchers’ rationale was simple: in the afternoon, the judges were likely weary. Specifically, they were feeling decision fatigue. This form of cognitive tiredness comes after a time of lengthy decision making and it might make individuals more impulsive and less confident when making decisions.
The hazards of decision fatigue are evident in high-stakes settings like this research, but it may have a major influence on our day-to-day lives as well. So what types of decisions bring us to this condition, and what can we do to counteract fatigue? Everything our bodies do— whether physical or mental— needs energy.
But although it’s unclear precisely what resources are exhausted during mental pressure, studies have discovered many people appear to have a daily threshold for making judgments. Once that barrier is reached, most individuals make the intentional choice to “take it easy” and delay serious consideration about any new choices for another day.
How soon you hit this threshold relies on various factors, including the frequency, complexity, and originality of the judgments you have to make. For example, deciding what to eat for breakfast isn't extremely hard. Not only is this option restricted by what's available, but it's also a choice you anticipate making once a day with rather minimal stakes.
And even when you’re not exactly sure what to eat, the time between one small choice and the next one should allow you adequate space to recuperate whatever cognitive energy you waste. But let’s imagine something far tougher. For example, your automobile unexpectedly breaks down and you need to replace it soon quickly.
This is an unexpected, complex choice with major ramifications. In this scenario, there are innumerable possibilities to pick from, and you won't find them all in one spot. To make the ideal option, you’ll need to perform hours of serious study to weigh the numerous advantages and downsides. And because this is a choice you don’t typically make, you’ll also have to define what aspects are most significant.
The time constraint may create extra stress both during the decision-making process and subsequently, as you invest more energy thinking whether you would have made a different choice with more time. After only a single choice of this size, most individuals would have already hit their decision-making threshold. But in professions where people need to make many high-stakes judgments every day, decision fatigue may be even more deadly. Judges, like those in the 2011 research, regularly meet severe judgments back-to-back, with little opportunity to recuperate.
Many scholars are particularly worried about decision fatigue in medicine. Doctors typically work lengthy hours full of life-or-death choices, and several studies have revealed that medical staff are far more prone to make key errors while working longer shifts. Addressing these challenges needs institutional changes, but there are many more obvious ways most of us may minimize weariness in our everyday lives.
One easy solution is to make fewer daily choices, handle your to-do list across numerous days, or even eliminate certain repetitive decisions from your day completely. It’s also often less taxing to provide counsel on a challenging decision than it is to make that option yourself. So it might be good to view your judgments as someone else’s before evaluating how the implications influence you individually.
Finally, it's critical to realize that not every option is equally important, and learning how to relax about trivial things will help you preserve energy for the choices that count.