Meeting 2: Decision fatigue

You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day… You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
— Barack Obama on decision making as president


Last time, the concept of ego depletion was introduced. This time we're exploring it a bit further, and especially something that can be very depleting: making decisions [1]. I chose paper 1 for an overview of research about how making decisions or choices can cause us to become depleted. Paper 2 is looking at outcomes that particularly interest us as knowledge workers - how intellectual performance is affected by ego depletion (however it comes about).

Paper 1 examines the effects of making choices on subsequent self-control. Findings from four studies are reported on, and suggest that making choices does impair later self-control, i.e. causes ego depletion. For example, in one study, subjects got to choose between college course options. Others got to think about the options but did not have to make a choice - these were not depleted. Making choices led to things like decreased persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination and worse performance on arithmetic calculation.

  • What choices do you have to make in a day, are they all necessary?
  • What could you easily routinize to avoid excessive choice each day?
  • Phone notifications, email, ads, distractions -> forced choice-situations

Paper 2 discusses three studies on effects of ego depletion on tasks requiring ”high level cognitive control”, as compared to tasks requiring less cognitive control to perform. Not all information processing depends on executive control. Think of what Kahneman calls system 1 vs system 2 modes of thinking. Logical reasoning etc uses system 2, which is relatively slow and costly. Examples of this are: ”drawing conclusions and implications from ideas, extrapolating from known facts to make estimates about unknowns, and generating novel ideas”. The distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence may also apply, where fluid intelligence - the ability to reason, manipulate abstractions and discern logical relationships - relies more on volitional resources than crystallised intelligence which involves retrieval of knowledge acquired through experience or education.

The test of ”easy” cognitive tasks were for example rote memorisation and knowledge like ”Who wrote Gone with the wind?” while the complex tasks involved choosing and implementing an analytic strategy, select among a variety of information, decide what is useful and what is to be ignored. Which of these is more like doing a PhD? :)

The studies concluded that, as expected and in line with the strength model, ego depletion worsens performance on complex cognitive tasks but not easy cognitive tasks. The researchers believe more complex tasks require more self-regulation and thus, becomes affected by depletion of this resource.


[1] Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 883-898.

[2] Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 33-46.