Optimize Cognition at Work by Reducing Decisions: Part I

by Jarrett Green

Is it possible that the small decisions we make throughout the work day directly affect our high-level cognitive functioning and professional performance at work? The science says, “yes!” 

The Cookie and the Radish

In 1998, a psychologist named Roy Baumeister conducted a landmark study that made him a giant in the world of psychology. He walked into a room filled with individuals who had volunteered for a cognitive test, carrying a large plate of piping hot, fresh-baked cookies, as well as a bag of radishes. The fragrance of the fresh cookies filled the room. He randomly presented each volunteer with either a fresh-baked cookie or a radish, without giving them a choice, or explanation.

After providing each volunteer with the snack, he passed out a puzzle, which, unbeknownst to the volunteers, was impossible to solve. He then recorded how long it took for each group of volunteers to quit on the puzzle. On average, the volunteers who were offered a cookie struggled with the puzzle for twice as long before quitting, as compared to volunteers who were offered a radish.  

Decision Fatigue

Baumeister’s new theory was born: humans have a limited amount of willpower or energy on any given day, and when we needlessly burn that precious fuel, we have reduced willpower, attention and cognitive resources for subsequent cognitive tasks. Baumeister theorized that the volunteers who received the radishes fell into frustration and rumination at their “unfair” snack, which burned critical cognitive fuel, leaving them depleted and more likely to quit the puzzle sooner. He reasoned that willpower and cognitive fuel are limited resources; and if we burn them on needless matters throughout the typical work day, our cognition and performance begin to erode. His theory is generally referred to as “willpower depletion” or “decision fatigue.” 

Hundreds of studies over the last two decades support the existence of willpower depletion. What they indicate is that with certain exceptions (e.g., exercise, meditation, music and art, and activities that primarily stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain), each and every micro-decision, micro-action, and micro-cognition we make throughout the day causes a reduction in our energy and willpower to commit cognitive tasks, leading to reduced focus, greater distractibility, and impaired decision-making.

Real World Impact: The Legal System

One study analyzed the willpower depletion doctrine among criminal judges by tracking 1,112 parole rulings by eight judges over the course of 10 months. The critical factor that determined the likelihood of parole being granted was the time of day of each parole decision; it was not the defendant’s crime or circumstances that determined whether convicted criminals were released into the public. It was the judge’s schedule.  

Over the course of the analysis, parole was granted at a rather consistent rate of about 65% in the beginning of the morning sessions, with the grant rate steadily dropping over the course of the morning session until hitting an average of nearly 0% immediately before the lunch break, when the judges were most exhausted. Then, immediately after the lunch break, when the judges were again energized and cognitively renewed, the granting rate again rose to approximately 65%, before steadily declining again to nearly 0% at the very end of the day. Because granting parole requires far more effort, thought, and legal justification than denying parole, the willpower depletion that occurred over the course of the parole sessions led to a diminished reserve of willpower and cognitive resources in the judges, which in turn led to impaired decision-making and diminished parole grants.   

Real World Impact: Doctors and Patients 

Willpower depletion has also been shown to affect doctors’ decision-making on critical matters such as prescriptions. A study published by the American Medical Association found that primary care physicians’ prescription decisions regarding patients presenting with acute respiratory infections were primarily determined by how long into each session the patient arrived, rather than the unique respiratory symptoms of each patient. Because the decision not to issue a prescription requires far more cognitive resources and intellectual analysis than does issuing it, the longer the physician was in session, the more likely they were to issue prescriptions to each successive patient.

The study concluded that primary care clinicians’ likelihood of prescribing antibiotics for these patients increased during clinic sessions, meaning that decision fatigue progressively impairs clinicians’ ability to resist ordering inappropriate treatments.  
Click here to read what you can do about this in Part 2. 

Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A. Psychology, is a former business litigator, who now works with companies, law firms, and other entities to help reduce employee stress and turmoil, improve employee engagement and fulfillment, and optimize employee performance and success. He also serves as an executive coach, and a law professor at USC Law School, where he co-created the “Mindfulness, Stress Management, and Peak Performance” program. You can contact him at jag@jarrett-green.com, and learn more about him at www.Jarrett-Green.com.


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