Making Decisions Can Tax Your Brain

Every day we are confronted with decisions — what to wear; if we should hire that person; is this the best decision for my business; did I make the right career choice, etc. Sometimes we feel our brain is on overload and we need to take a break. Is there such a thing as too many decisions?

Our brain, like any other muscle, requires exercise, nutrition and rest. It is not without it’s limits. Researchers are spending a lot of time trying to find out if there are limits to our “executive functions,” like decision-making.

From focusing on a specific task for a long period of time, or making a decision as to what to eat for dinner, you are stretching your executive muscles, even if they seem miles apart in importance. These decisions require a conscious effort to focus on a certain thought, and draws upon one limited resource. When we exhaust this resource on one activity it lowers our ability to take advantage of the resource — even on a seemingly unrelated activity.

Take this example: You are in the enviable position of having two different jobs offered to you — one is boring, but has job security; the other sounds like something you could really enjoy, but the security is shaky. Ten years of psychology research says that if you had an unrelated decision to make prior to making this important decision — say whether to have dessert with your lunch, you put a lot of pressure on your executive function and may interrupt your brain’s ability to make a good decision. So, the decision to have dessert or not could have cost you the right job.

What puts a strain on your executive function? Researchers have been focusing on self-control or focus for most of their studies on executive function. They knew that cognitive tasks that require a lot of strenuous memory skills, like taking the SAT or Military Exams, make it harder to focus on other tasks. Now it appears there taking on other types of mental activities may also be involved in straining your executive function.

University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her team of researchers -through a series of experiments and field studies found that the simple act of making a selection of any kind could deplete your executive function. One task had students mark the courses of study they would like to take in order to finish their degree requirements. Researchers found that, when faced with all these decisions the students had a tendency to put off preparing for important tests they had coming up.   Instead of studying, their   “tired” minds became distracted with other types of leisure activities.

Why does making a decision put so much pressure on your executive function? There could be two reasons:

1.           Commitment. Committing to a decision requires switching from thought to action.

2.         Trade-off resolution. In one study, conducted by Yale University researchers, shows that people who had to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually make choices between the very same options.

What’s important about these findings is that if making a decision depletes executive function, then the decisions we make when our brains are tired could be in question. A University of Maryland team found exactly this to be true, “Individuals who had to regulate their attention–which requires executive control–made significantly different choices than people who did not. These different choices follow a very specific pattern: they become reliant more and more on simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.”

If we spend a lot of time focusing on a specific task, using self-control, or simply making a lot of seemingly minor choices, then we probably shouldn’t try to make a major decision.

It is important to know that your brain is like any other muscle in your body and can only take just so much exertion. When faced with a major decision, a tired brain can have a major, and perhaps even adverse affect on your final decision.

From the Desk of Ron White

Memory Training


Scientific American — Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain:

PubMed — Ego Depletion: Is the Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?

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