Deciding used to be easy. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of mortgages, pick between dozens of toothpaste or decide between Pepsi, Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Twist. Deciding was simple for them, eat or perish, find shelter or suffer.
The agrarian and industrial revolutions changed this. Now, resources are plentiful and available, and the diversity of alternatives is hard not to notice. When it comes to living spaces, food, friends, and even potential marital partners, there is an option for just about anything. The problem is that too many options hinder our ability to choose rationally. Psychologists term this the paradox of choice, and it describes our tendency to be less satisfied the more options we are given. The often cited jam study, for example, demonstrated that people who picked from 24 or 30 different jams were less satisfied that people who picked from six.
The larger problem is when this occurs repeatedly. In an experiment by Jean Twenge, a postdoctoral in Roy Baumeister’s lab, participants were presented with table full of products that were “appealing to college students,” and told they would get to keep one at the end of the experiment. Twenge created two groups. The first “went through a series of choices… a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-Shit?” The second group “spent an equally long period of time contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to rate their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.”
Afterward, Twenge tested their self-control by having them hold their hands in ice water for as long as they could. She found that the first group gave up much sooner than the second group. “Making all those choices,” Baumeister concludes in his recent book Willpower, “had apparently sapped their willpower, and the effect showed up again in other decision-making exercises.”
Baumeister, who has spent his career studying mental disciple, uses the term ego-depletion to suggest that brains have a finite amount of mental energy, and when it is spent, our ability to be rational diminishes. The co-author of Willpower, John Tierney, sums it up:
[Ego-Depletion] helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.
How can we overcome ego depletion? One obvious answer is to eat healthy, take breaks at work and get enough sleep. Also, make sure you have enough glucose in your system. Another study done by Baumeister demonstrated that participants who were given lemonade with glucose preformed better on a, “task in which they needed to overcome an intuitive response to get the correct answer” than participants who were given lemonade with Splenda. The right amount of glucose, it turned out, kept their brains fresh and sharp – more rational.
The bad news is that our brains, which were built for the African savannah and biologically identical to our ancestors who lived nearly 100,000 years ago, aren’t going to adapt anytime soon. Our genetics will get nudged one way or another over the millennia, but our prefrontal cortices will likely never be able to rationally handle the cognitive demands of a shopping mall. So for the dissatisfied Manhattanites of the world, it might be better to move – if possible – to an environment where there are not so many options, only enough to be happy and healthy. As William F. Buckley was known to have said, “if you have no alternatives, you have no problems.”