Tired of making choices

by Rob Horning

23 July 2008


The myriad of choices we have in the consumer marketplace is supposed to make up the bulk of our inheritance for having been born into thriving capitalist democracies. Parsing these options allow us to experience the freedom of choice, which is elided with freedom and liberty in general and is meant to compensate for various inequities in income, social mobility, and political access. But as behavioral economists and various consumer researchers have attempted to demonstrate, a surfeit of choices is as likely to make us miserable as it is to make us happy, and the choices can feel merely like occasions to make mistakes, not reveal personal preferences and give tangible shape to our innermost sense of ourselves. We frequently lack the information to make wise decisions in the marketplace yet are compelled to make them anyway—to express our pseudo-political will, and make manifest our vaunted individuality, of which we are supposed to be so proud. So we are left feeling insecure, vulnerable, beleaguered—paradoxically looking for advice on what to buy to express our uniqueness.

The studies detailed in this Scientific American article make matters appear even worse, as it suggests that having to repeatedly make choices—as our consumer culture prides itself on making us do—leads to degraded “executive function”.

When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choose to eat a salad instead of a piece of cake, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes require conscious effort-you have to resist the temptation to let your mind wander or to indulge in the sweet dessert. It turns out, however, that use of executive function—a talent we all rely on throughout the day—draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity.

In other words, the bombardment of marketing we are confronted with tires out our brains and makes it more likely we will make poor decisions or lack the wherewithal to resist that marketing. The advertiser’s campaign against us is really a war of attrition.

If making choices depletes executive resources, then “downstream” decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Indeed, University of Maryland psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found exactly this effect: individuals who had to regulate their attention—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who did not. These different choices follow a very specific pattern: they become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.

This way of viewing the brain suggests we should take a conservationist approach to decision-making, delegating insignificant ones so that we may be sharp for the ones that matter. One might even argue that we could let ads make the unimportant consumption decisions for us, trusting the ubiquity of certain products in the media as a proxy for their worthiness. But then, of course, we would need to decide which decisions to delegate (or make on automatic pilot) and which ones to take ourselves. And that may be the most insidious aspect of all the marketing—it obfuscates the importance of various choices, making silly things seem integral and important decisions seem matter of fact.

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