But executive function draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in your brain. When this resource is exhausted, your mental capacity may be severely hindered. Even unrelated activities that tax the executive function have important lingering effects, and may disrupt your ability to make important decisions later.
These findings have important real world implications. If making choices depletes executive resources, then later decisions might be affected adversely when you are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Basically, your brain is like a muscle -- when it is depleted, it becomes less effective.
I find this research quite intriguing as it lends renewed credence to other, more or less known, phenomena, like how multi-tasking actually leads to reduced efficiency, or how limiting choices can increase your happiness.
According to this new research, any time you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time, or make any kind of selection or choice, you flex your brain’s executive function muscles.
The kinds of thought processes that require your conscious effort, such as resisting the temptation to let your mind wander, or choosing between different flavors, for example, draw on the same limited capacity in your brain: your executive function.
What researchers are finding is that once your executive function is exhausted from one activity, then your capacity to draw upon it again shortly thereafter may be severely hindered.
Multi-Tasking May Be Over-Taxing Your Brain
Previous research has discovered that multitasking can be counter-productive, reducing your productivity. When you juggle several tasks simultaneously, you’re using your executive control processes, which prioritize different tasks and assign cognitive resources to them.
Perhaps this new research can shed additional light on why you become less productive and effective when you multitask. It could be that this very act exhausts your executive resources to the point where you’re simply not making sound judgment calls, which is a common problem when multitasking. You may find you have to go back and redo work simply because it wasn’t completed well the first time.
But what other types of actions exhaust executive function and affect subsequent decision-making?
Until recently, researchers focused on activities that involved the exertion of self-control or the regulation of attention. For instance, it's well recognized that strenuous cognitive tasks like taking a lengthy test can make it more difficult to focus later on.
But more recent results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that even the most common activity of making everyday choices and selections can wear out your executive resources.
They found that the act of making choices – such as making active shopping decisions in a mall -- led to reduced self-control in many areas, including:
- Less physical stamina
- Reduced persistence in the face of failure
- More procrastination
- Less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations
Further studies also suggested that choosing is more depleting than merely deliberating and forming preferences about options, and more depleting than implementing decisions made by someone else.
The good news is that anticipating the choice task, and expecting it to be enjoyable, can reduce the depleting effect.
Limiting Choices Can Make You Happier, But Can it Help You Make Better Decisions as Well?
You may remember my previous article, Increase Your Happiness by Limiting Choices, in which Dr. Barry Schwartz argues that the ever-expanding deluge of choices may be a significant contributor to the explosion of depression and suicide. This is because, he says, people living in the Western world typically have high expectations for a given experience, and usually find fault with themselves about the decisions they make.
Again, if you’re constantly taxing your brain’s executive resources with non-essential choices, you could be increasing your probability of not being able to make sound decisions when it really counts – and you could end up beating yourself up for it.
But why is making a choice so taxing on your brain?
Evidence implicates two important components: commitment and tradeoff resolution.
The first is predicated on the notion that once you commit to a given course, it requires you to switch from a state of deliberation to one of implementation. In other words, you have to make a transition from thinking about options to actually following through on the decision you just made.
This switch – similar to that of prioritizing and switching between tasks when multitasking -- requires you to use your brain’s executive resources.
In a parallel investigation at Yale University, researchers suggest that the mere act of resolving tradeoffs can deplete your executive function. For example, people who had to simply rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually decide between those very same options.
Your Take-Home Message
So what does all this mean to you?
In another related study, psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found that individuals who had to regulate their attention to ignore interesting cues—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who were allowed to pay attention to anything they wanted.
Specifically, they became reliant on a more simplistic, often inferior, thought process, and thus were more likely to fall prey to perceptual decoys, and make bad decisions based on those irrelevant decoys.
If it’s true that making choices depletes your executive resources, then any decisions you have to make later could be affected adversely if you are forced to choose with a fatigued brain.
Perhaps the take-home message is to simplify your life; simplify and reduce your daily options, and belabor largely irrelevant choices as little as possible, to save your brain power for the decisions that really matter.