The Science of Why We Suffer from Decision Fatigue


Most of us have experienced decision fatigue at one point or another. You know the feeling: It’s 3 p.m. and you’ve been working on a project for hours. You’re tired, your concentration is shot, and you can’t seem to focus on anything. So you reach for a candy bar or a cup of coffee to give yourself a boost.

Or maybe you’re out shopping and you’ve been browsing the racks for what seems like forever. Every decision — what size, what color, what style — feels like a monumental task. So you just grab the first thing that catches your eye and head to the checkout.

Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon, and it can have a major impact on our lives. It’s been shown to affect everything from what we eat to the decisions we make about our relationships, our careers, and even our criminal activity.

So what exactly is decision fatigue? And why does it happen?

In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, decision fatigue is defined as “the deteriorating quality of decisions made after an extended period of decision making.”

In other words, it’s the feeling of being overwhelmed or worn out that comes from making too many decisions. And it’s not just a feeling — it’s a real phenomenon that can impact our behavior.

Researchers have found that decision fatigue can lead us to make poorer choices in both our personal and professional lives. In one famous study, researchers found that judges were more likely to grant parole early in the day, before they’d had to make a lot of decisions. But as the day wore on and they became more and more fatigued, their likelihood of granting parole decreased.

Similarly, another study found that doctors were more likely to prescribe unnecessary tests and procedures when they were tired. And in the realm of personal relationships, fatigue has been shown to lead to poorer decision making about everything from what to wear on a date to whether or not to stay in a relationship.

One of the most interesting things about decision fatigue is that it doesn’t seem to matter how important the decisions we’re making are. Whether we’re choosing what to eat for lunch or whether to accept a job offer, we’re susceptible to its effects.

So why does decision fatigue happen?

There are a few different theories. One is that it’s simply a matter of limited resources. When we make decisions, we use up mental resources like willpower and self-control. And when those resources are depleted, we’re more likely to make poor choices.

Another theory is that decision fatigue is a byproduct of the information overload we experience in the modern world. With constant access to email, social media, and news channels, we’re bombarded with more information than ever before. And that information can be overwhelming, leading us to feel fatigued when it comes time to make decisions.

Whatever the cause, decision fatigue is a real phenomenon with real consequences. So what can we do to combat it?

There are a few different strategies. One is to make sure we’re getting enough sleep. When we’re well-rested, we’re less likely to feel fatigued and more likely to make better decisions.

Another strategy is to limit the number of choices we have to make. If we can streamline our decision-making process, we’ll be less likely to feel overwhelmed.

Finally, we can try to be more aware of the choices we’re making and the impact they may have. When we’re mindful of our decisions, we can avoid making careless choices that we may later regret.

Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon, but we don’t have to be its victim. By understanding its causes and effects, we can take steps to avoid its negative consequences.

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