Decisions, decisions | Bleader

Decisions, decisions

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  • Michael Doss
I'll be facing many crucial choices Saturday night at an important poker gathering—so it was a no-brainer to read the story on decision-making that will be in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. (It's already posted online.)

Our decision-making deteriorates as the day wears on, NYT science columnist John Tierney writes, not just because we're tired but also because we suffer from "decision fatigue"—the strain of making decisions accumulates through the day, making our decisions worse and worse.

Among the early commenters on the story is a retired emergency department doctor who questions the wisdom of the 12-hour ER shift: "I wonder if our decisions are as good in the final four hours of the shift compared with the first eight hours."

I've had similar concerns about editors. It's not as much a problem for writers because of our two-hour days, which I recommend for other professions.

The findings on decision fatigue could be applied to voting. The Chicago adage "vote early and often" may be on the right track: perhaps morning votes should count double.

Tierney says decisions are also harder to make when we're depleted from exerting our willpower for too long—and he says we exert it constantly fighting off temptations. He points to a study that suggests we spend three to four hours a day resisting desire. "If you tapped four or five people at any random moment of the day, one of them would be using willpower to resist a desire," he writes.

I tested this on the way to work today, and can report that if you tap four people on the shoulder on the el and ask them if they're resisting a desire, all four will back away quickly.

The most commonly resisted desires in the resisting-desire study were: urges to eat and sleep; the urge for leisure, such as taking a break from work to play a game; and the urge for sex, which, surprisingly, beat out the urge to check Facebook, though only narrowly.

When our willpower is depleted after a long day of decision-making, "frustrations seem more irritating than usual," Tierney writes. "Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further)....Ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs." It's as if he's been at our poker games.

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