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Being a Decider Takes Its Toll

New research suggests every choice made depletes our store of mental energy, lessening our ability to control impulses.
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Thank you for choosing to read this story. Picking it out among the vast array of available articles may or may not have been an easy decision, but if Kathleen Vohs is right, it was a surprisingly costly one.

An experimental psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Vohs is lead author of a new study in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which she argues that making decisions — something most of us are forced to do countless times each day — lessens our ability to control our impulses.

In Vohs' view, choosing one option over another is a uniquely depleting experience, one that makes us more likely to indulge in bad habits. You can opt to believe her or not. But evidence her thesis holds up can be found in the study's set of seven experiments.

Originally it had 12, but an editor rejected that draft, asking the authors to cut it down to a more manageable level. To Vohs, this response proved her point. Reading a longish paper isn't particularly taxing, but judging a dozen experiments — that is, choosing whether they are valid — is something else altogether.

"Modern Western society has two epidemics," she said. "One is rampant self-control problems — over-eating, over-drinking, over-spending, sexual liaisons that ought not to happen. The other is rampant choice-making. I see these two as intimately related."

The research that supports this surprising link is an outgrowth of previous work by Vohs and her colleagues, including Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. "We have a model about self-control," she explained. "Self-control is governed by what I call ‘self-regulatory resources.'"

These resources are finite, meaning every act of self-control draws down our supply, leaving us vulnerable to impulse behavior in other arenas. "Almost all of our previous research on this model has found that if you engage in self-control in one domain, you'll have less self-control in another domain," she said.

Vohs and her colleagues had long theorized that a link exists between self-control and decision-making, but it was the comments of a colleague that provided the catalyst for their investigation. "She noticed that after she engaged in her wedding-registry ordeal, she had no control over her responses," Vohs recalled. "She made the comment, ‘After you've decided what design you want for the gravy boat, you can be talked into anything.' "

To discover if this connection was real, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which participants were forced to make a number of decisions. Afterwards, the volunteers were asked to perform an unpleasant task for as long as possible -- say, imbibe a healthy but foul-tasting drink.

The results were remarkably consistent: The more choices they made, the less willpower they had to perform the unwelcome chore. "This pattern was found with assigned choices and spontaneously made choices," the authors write. "It was found with inconsequential and more consequential choices."

"The more choices we make, the more taxing it is," Vohs concluded. "End of story."

After a series of lab experiments, the researchers decided to do a field test. They went to a Salt Lake City mall and asked shoppers to estimate how many choices they had made since entering the building. They then asked the volunteers — 19 women and 39 men, ranging in age from 18 to 59 — to complete a series of addition problems.

The result: The more choices they reported making, the more math mistakes they made — in large part because they worked more quickly, not taking time to make sure they were adding correctly. In other words, self-discipline levels were low.

Could fatigue be a factor in the faulty figures? After all, having shopped, perhaps they were ready to drop.

"We asked them, on a one-to-seven scale, whether they felt tired right now," Vohs said. "We found how tired they felt was not predictive at all of their persistence on math problems."

So here was real-world confirmation of what the researchers had seen in the lab: decision-making is uniquely depleting.

"In science, most of the time, the strongest statement you can make is a lab experiment in which you force certain subjects to do X and other subjects to do not-X," Vohs noted. "In these experiments, because we're talking about choice, moving to a naturalistic environment — in which people reported on their decision-making — was actually more compelling."

Vohs' research contains echoes of studies conducted earlier this decade, which concluded consumers are being bombarded with too many choices, leading to anxiety and, at times, paralysis. But she cautioned that her work, while related, has a different orientation. While those studies looked at the cost of having too many options, hers are about the cost of making too many choices.

"Even when the number of options is low, making a choice is depleting," she said. "Even a choice between two options — white socks and black socks — taxes the self."

So what's the answer?

"Simplify. Try to make fewer decisions. Try to divorce yourself from the decision-making process. Maybe your life will improve in some really important ways.

"One thing you might do is say to your partner, ‘You decide what we're doing this weekend.' You get credit for that, and you might not eat so much or drink so much! It's a win-win!"

In addition, Vohs suggests teaching people to recognize when their impulse control is being weakened, so they can avoid situations where they might get triggered.

"Say you're renovating your house," she said. "You're making a lot of decisions. Let's teach people that's a vulnerable period!"
And if they need further convincing, there is always the example of one of the greatest thinkers of all time, who — at least by some accounts — did not wish to waste a single brain cell pondering what to wear.

"Albert Einstein had only one suit," Vohs said, "but he had it replicated 25 times."