What Is Decision Fatigue? Definition and Examples

Having Too Many Choices Isn’t Always a Good Thing

A woman chooses from different produce options at a market.

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Decision fatigue occurs when people feel exhausted from making too many choices. Psychologists have found that, even though we generally like having choices, having to make too many decisions in a short amount of time may lead us to make decisions that are less than optimal.

Key Takeaways: Decision Fatigue

  • Although having choices is good for our well-being, psychologists have found that having to make too many choices can have detrimental consequences.
  • When we have to make too many choices in a short span of time, we may experience a type of mental fatigue known as ego depletion.
  • By limiting how many inconsequential decisions we need to make and scheduling decision-making for times when we feel most alert, we may be able to make better decisions.

The Downside of Too Many Choices

Imagine you’re at the grocery store, trying to quickly pick up a few things for dinner that night. For each ingredient, would you rather choose from several different options, or would you prefer having dozens of options available to choose from?

Many of us would probably guess that we’d be happier with more options in scenarios like this. However, researchers have found that this isn’t necessarily the case—in some scenarios, we actually seem to do better when we have a more limited set of options. In one research paper, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper looked at the consequences of being given either many or few choices. Researchers set up displays at a supermarket where shoppers could sample different flavors of jam. Crucially, sometimes the display was set up to give participants a relatively limited set of options (6 flavors) and other times it was set up to give participants a wider range of options (24 flavors). While more people stopped by the display when there were more choices, the people who stopped weren’t very likely to actually purchase the jam.

The researchers found that participants who had seen the display with more choices were much less likely to actually buy a jar of jam, compared to participants who saw the more limited display—suggesting that having too many choices may have been overwhelming for consumers.

In a follow-up study, the researchers found that participants given more choices (i.e. choosing from 30 chocolates instead of 6 chocolates) found the decision-making process more enjoyable—but also more difficult and frustrating. Moreover, the researchers found that participants who were given more options (those who had chosen from 30 chocolates) were, overall, less satisfied with the choice they made than participants who had been given fewer options. However, participants who had a choice of which chocolate they received (whether they had 6 or 30 options) were more satisfied with the chocolate they picked than participants who had no choice about which chocolate they were given. In other words, we like to have choices, but having too many choices may not necessarily be optimal.

While choosing jams or chocolates may seem like a relatively trivial choice, it turns out that being overloaded with too many choices can have real-life consequences. As John Tierney wrote for the New York Times, people who have been overloaded with too many decisions may make poorly thought-out decisions—or even put off making a decision.

In fact, researchers have found that prisoners are more likely to be granted parole if their case is heard earlier in the day (or right after a meal break). Exhausted, fatigued judges (who have spent an entire day making decisions) seem to be less likely to grant parole. In another study, people were less likely to participate in a retirement savings plan when they were given more types of funds they could choose to contribute to.

Why Does Decision Fatigue Occur?

Why do we sometimes find it so surprisingly difficult to make choices, and why do we feel exhausted after choosing? One theory puts forward that making choices causes us to experience a state known as ego depletion. Essentially, the idea behind ego depletion is that we have a certain amount of willpower available to us, and using up energy for one task means that we’re not able to do as well on a subsequent task.

In one test of this idea, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers looked at how making choices might affect people’s actions on subsequent tasks that also required self-control. In one study, college students were asked to make choices (choosing college courses). Other students were asked to look at the list of courses available, but they were not asked to actually choose which courses they wanted to take. In the next part of the study, participants were given the opportunity to study for a math test—but the researchers also made magazines and a video game available to students. The crucial question was whether the students would spend their time studying (an activity requiring self-discipline), or whether they would procrastinate (for example, by reading the magazines or playing the video game). If making choices caused ego depletion, participants who made choices would be expected to procrastinate more. The researchers found that their hypothesis was confirmed: participants who made choices spent less time studying math problems, compared to the participants who hadn’t been required to make choices.

In a follow-up study, the researchers found that even making enjoyable decisions can cause this type of fatigue, if one is tasked with making decision after decision. In this study, participants were asked to choose items for a hypothetical wedding registry. The participants who thought this activity would be enjoyable didn’t experience ego depletion if they made fewer choices (working on the task for 4 minutes), but they experienced ego depletion if they were asked to work on the task for longer (12 minutes). In other words, even fun and enjoyable choices can become depleting over time—it seems that it indeed is possible to have “too much of a good thing.”

Does Decision Fatigue Always Happen?

Since the original research on decision fatigue and ego depletion was published, newer research has called some of its findings into question. For example, a 2016 paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science was unable to replicate one of the classic findings from ego depletion research, which means that some psychologists aren’t as confident about studies on ego depletion as they once were.

Similarly, psychologists studying choice have found that the “choice overload” studied by Iyengar and Lepper doesn’t necessarily always occur. Instead, it seems that having too many choices can be paralyzing and overwhelming in some circumstances, but not others. In particular, researchers have found that choice overload seems to occur when the decisions we have to make are especially complicated or difficult.

What Can We Do About Decision Fatigue?

Virtually everyone would agree that having choices is important. People want to have a feeling of control over their environment, and research has shown that being in uncontrollable situations—where our choices are more limited—has negative consequences for well-being. However, sometimes we have so many choices available to us that choosing among them can be a daunting prospect. In cases like these, researchers have found that the sheer number of choices we make may actually leave us feeling exhausted or worn out.

One way to avoid decision fatigue can be to streamline the choices we make and find habits and routines that work for us—instead of making new choices from scratch each day. For example, Matilda Kahl writes in Harper’s Bazaar about selecting a work uniform: every day, she wears essentially the same outfit to work. By not having to choose what to wear, she explains, she’s able to avoid expending the mental energy that goes into picking out an outfit. Of course, not everyone wants to wear the same thing every day, but the principle here is to limit how much of our day is spent making choices that aren’t personally important to us. Other suggestions for managing decision fatigue include making key decisions earlier in the day (before fatigue sets in) and knowing when you might need to take a nap and revisit a problem with fresh eyes.

It’s also important to remember that it’s completely normal to feel depleted after working on an activity that requires lots of decisions—even if it’s an activity you like. When we find ourselves facing lots of important decisions in a short period of time, it can be especially important to practice self-care (that is, activities that promote our mental and physical well-being).

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