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September 24, 2015

Food for Thought

September 24, 2015

It’s rare that I make it through a whole day at SmallBox without at least one fascinating and thought-provoking conversation with a coworker. While topics can run the gamut from sparking revolutions to the newest cute thing Elizabeth’s daughters did, I always leave with new insight and a hundred new questions. As my background is in Psychology, I sometimes like to bring in studies I’ve read and, after a recent conversation with Sara on morality and our internal clock, I started thinking about studies I had read on decision making. I was curious about how these studies could inform business practices and difficult business decisions.

One of my favorite studies on decision making, by Shai Danziger, examined which factors most influenced judges’ decisions to grant parole. You might expect that race, individual bias, or the severity of the crime played the most significant role in whether parole was granted, but you’ll be surprised to know that the biggest factor, by a landslide, was actually time-of-day.

According to Danziger, this finding demonstrated “decision fatigue,” or a decline in one’s ability to make decisions after a long period of decision making. This study showed that judges were most willing to make the decision to grant parole at the beginning of the day and least likely later on. However, there was more to it than just time. Danziger also found that, immediately after taking a snack break, judges regained most of their willingness to grant parole. Other studies, including many by the famous social psychologist Baumeister, have also shown eating, or more specifically sugar intake, to have a direct correlation with one's willingness to make decisions.

There have been many different theories to explain this "decision fatigue," but the most widely accepted theory is that decision making requires a significant amount of energy, which is generated from glucose (a simple sugar found in most foods) stored in the brain. Therefore, when our glucose stores are running low because we haven’t eaten in awhile, we become tired and unable to make decisions.

Bread with almond butter and honey
A snack, courtesy of Drew, during Factory Week.

Just thinking about lighter decisions like shopping for a new car or computer makes me tired, so I can only imagine how exhausted those judges must have been after 2 hours of making decisions as important as whether or not to grant someone parole! This connection between glucose and decision fatigue is much more complex than I have time to describe here, but if you are interested in learning more about it and the way it has shaped our culture and the marketing world, I highly recommend reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister.

For better or for worse, this phenomenon has a profound effect on all of our lives and understanding how it works can be extremely useful in our everyday interactions and in our work with other clients or organizations. Here are a couple of ideas on how to make use of this information:

  • Next time you’re scheduling an important meeting, try to find a time soon after a meal so that you’re sure everyone in the meeting will have the mental energy necessary to make it productive.
  • If you’re in a long meeting or know you will have to make a lot of decisions, make sure you have a snack and take plenty of breaks.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you keep eating until all of your decisions make themselves (there are many other factors involved in decision making), but there is definitely something to be learned from what we know about decision making and ways we can structure our lives to alleviate these limitations and improve our decision making abilities.

Side thought: They say you should never shop on an empty stomach, but maybe its the grumbling in your brain, rather than your stomach, with which you should be most concerned. Why do you think stores stock all of the candy and trinkets right at the cash register? I’ll give you a hint: it’s probably not because they think you've earned yourself a treat after all of your hard work shopping! We call these purchases “impulse buys” because we don’t think about it when we make the purchase, but maybe the real reason is that we’ve been worn down by all of our previous decisions and don’t have the willpower or energy to say no to a candy bar.

Have you ever noticed these dynamics around decision making at play? How else might you use this information to organize your day?

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