Decision Fatigue

The difficulty in life is the choice.” ~ George Moore, The Bending of the Bough

Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual. The fatigue may be caused by something as simple as the time of day or something as complex as decision overload. Regardless of the cause, at some point, a person can become incapable of making any decision. Being incapable of making a decision is known as decision paralysis — a subject I will address in the next post.

Decision Fatigue

When they are asked to perform spelling or math problems, survivorsMath Problem of brain injury have a much higher rate of “brain recruitment” than those people who do not have a brain injury. Brain recruitment refers to the parts of the brain that are activated by performing a given task. In other words, a brain injured person will fatigue more easily than a person without a brain injury when the people are performing the same activity.

In the Psychology of Economic Decisions, Roy F. Baumister and others suggest that decision fatigue “is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.” When people are tired, they are typically incapable of making good decisions. The four main factors that influence decision fatigue are:

  • The time of day when a decision is made – studies show that people are more likely to decide poorly in the evening, shortly before a meal, and when they are tired.
  • The income level of the decision maker – studies show that people of low income think about the financial consequences of decisions more often than those who have significant financial means. Thus, people with less income tend to suffer from decision fatigue more often than high earners.
  • The complexity of a decision – studies show that people who are presented with complex choices are more likely to fatigue than people who are presented with simple choices.
  • The number of decisions made in a day – studies show that people who make multiple decisions in a day fatigue more easily than those who make fewer decisions in a day.

Decision Fatigue Scenarios

Checkout LineWikipedia explains that “Decision fatigue can influence irrational impulse purchases at supermarkets. During a trip to the supermarket, trade-off decisions regarding prices and promotions can produce decision fatigue, hence by the time the shopper reaches the cash register, less willpower remains to resist impulse purchases” of candy, gum, magazines, and other items that the shopper had no intention of buying.

A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Prisonerdescribes how Shai Danziger and his colleagues “followed eight judges for ten months as they ruled on over 1,000 applications made by prisoners to parole boards.” The plaintiffs were asking the board to change either the conditions of their incarceration or conditions of their parole. Danziger and his team found that, “at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply, eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.”


What causes you to experience decision fatigue? What is your preferred solution for reducing or eliminating decision fatigue? How can a daily plan reduce the likelihood of decision fatigue? If you had a choice to fight decision fatigue with a nap, sugary food, or a caffeinated drink which would you choose and why? What factors other than decision fatigue could explain the fatigue scenarios above?


Click here to read another Beyond Adversity post.

Thank you to Bing, Roy F. Baumister, Wikipedia, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shai Danziger, Amazon, and the many other people who contributed to the content of this post.

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