Decision fatigue is the idea that after making many decisions, a person’s ability to make additional decisions becomes worse.
The psychological effects of decision fatigue can vary, potentially leading to difficulty making the right decisions, impulse buying, or other avoidance behaviors.
There may be some ways to combat decision fatigue or limit the decisions a person needs to make to reduce the stress associated with decision making.
Keep reading to learn more.
Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon surrounding a person’s ability or capacity to make decisions. It is also called ego depletion.
The theory surrounding decision fatigue is that a human’s ability to make decisions can get worse after making many decisions, as their brain will be more fatigued.
This fatigue applies to all decisions, not simply the large or more difficult ones.
It can help some people to think of the decision making ability as a finite source, such as a battery. Each decision reduces the charge of the battery, and the person has less energy available to make other decisions later on.
Many experts still do not fully accept the notion of decision fatigue, partly due to the difficulty of proving the effects in any concrete way.
A meta-analysis in the journal Psychological Research notes that existing research only shows low evidence for ego depletion, but that it is still too early to make conclusive claims either way.
As a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology notes, the lack of a specific definition that is easy to categorize and test may be one of the reasons researchers are still debating the effect. Decision fatigue is also difficult to quantify and test for.
Researchers have observed the phenomenon, however. For instance, a study in Health Psychology found that nurses tended to make less efficient and more expensive clinical decisions about patient care the longer they went without a break.
There may also be an individualized role in the concept, so that the more a person feels or believes it affects them, the more it actually does.
The underlying cause of decision fatigue may have to do with a person’s stress levels and the number of decisions they have to make each day. The weight of these decisions also matters.
Most people have to make a large number of decisions each day. From the moment they wake up, they start making them.
Simple examples include what kind of clothes to wear, what to have for breakfast, and what to listen to on the way to work.
Business decisions, social interactions, and even leisure time all have their own inherent decisions involved that a person must weigh up and make, either consciously or subconsciously.
More complex decisions may deplete their energy levels faster.
As the day goes on and the person has to make more and more decisions, their ability to choose wisely decreases.
A person with decision fatigue may feel tired, have brain fog, or experience other signs or symptoms of physical or mental fatigue.
As the phenomenon may increase as a person makes more decisions, they may feel worse or more drained as the day goes on.
Decision fatigue may manifest in a few different ways, depending on how it affects a person.
The following are some potential effects of decision fatigue.
A common form of decision fatigue is impulse buying. Most people can recognize this in grocery stores, where candy, baked goods, and special deals are placed near the registers.
After making a series of decisions in the store, a person may be less likely to resist the quick deals and items nearer to the checkout.
A trade-off is a decision between two options, where each option has both a positive and negative element.
A person experiencing decision fatigue may be reluctant to make these decisions, take longer to make them, or simply make a decision that they later regret.
Some people may start to neglect, ignore, or avoid decisions altogether when they feel drained. This avoidance behavior may cause the person to simply choose the default or most socially acceptable option, rather than the option that is right for them.
Procrastination is another form of decision avoidance, wherein a person puts off making a decision for another day or until the need to make the decision disappears altogether.
By the standard view of decision fatigue, a person is more at risk of experiencing it if they:
- make many decisions throughout the day
- feel greatly affected by the decisions they make
- make very stressful decisions
- make very complex decisions
- make decisions affecting other people in a significant way
One of the most important risk factors for decision fatigue may be the belief that it will affect a person’s choices.
There may also be a cultural aspect to decision fatigue. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that although Western populations tend to show signs of ego depletion, similar tests in Indian populations show the opposite effect.
The Indian study participants performed better after first doing a strenuous task, while the Western participants tended to do worse after this task.
Again, researchers pointed to the idea of belief. The Indian participants tended to believe that exerting willpower was energizing, while the Western participants tended to believe that exerting willpower was draining.
Combating decision fatigue may begin with changing the patterns of belief surrounding willpower. People who train themselves to enjoy decision making and efforts of will may not notice the effects as much as others.
Other changes of habit may also help people combat decision fatigue. For example, a person could try:
Making important decisions first
If each decision depletes a person’s energy, it may be best to make the most important decisions as early as possible each day.
Whether it is a tough phone call, hard project, or another difficult task, making important decisions early in the day may help prevent decision fatigue when facing these choices.
The choice to engage with distractions that pull a person away from a project can be a form of decision fatigue. Choosing to look at a cell phone, browse social media, or glance at the television may drain their willpower for tasks later in the day.
Removing these distractions may help a person reduce this fatigue and engage with the tasks at hand.
Simplifying the wardrobe
Some people reduce decision fatigue by simplifying routine choices such as wardrobe, instead wearing a similar outfit each day.
Simplifying everyday decisions such as these may help some people feel less stress from the first decisions in their day.
Planning ahead may help eliminate other forms of decision fatigue. A simple example would be to make a meal plan and prepare meals for the week in advance.
This can help reduce decision making pressure in the moment and preserve brainpower for more important tasks.
Physical fatigue may also play a role in decision fatigue. Some people might simply make worse decisions when tired.
Taking rest breaks throughout the day as needed may help these people recharge. Some may even benefit from taking a short nap to help refresh their brain.
Decision fatigue is still a debated topic. For those who feel the effects of decision fatigue, it may be more difficult to make the best choices as the day goes on.
Although more research is necessary to fully understand decision fatigue, many people claim to experience its effects.
Changing the way a person looks at willpower may help them change their response to decisions.