The Surprising Truth Behind Why We Make Bad Decisions

We all make bad decisions all the time. And to top it off, we usually don’t realize that we’ve made a bad judgement until it’s too late.

Just think about the people whose lives revolve around making decisions, one distinct occupation immediately come to mind – court judges. Now, we might think that judges are always impartial and objective. But they’re just as susceptible to making bad decisions as everyone else. In fact, when psychologists studied and tracked how parole judges made decisions, they came to a very shocking discovery.

Now, you might expect the judges to consider factors such as the type of crime committed and their behaviour in prison (and they did) before deciding whether or not they should grant parole to a prisoner.

However, when the researchers collated the data from 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10-month period, there was one surprising factor that seemed to influence the judges’ decisions more than anything else.

And it didn’t have anything to do with the crime or the criminal.

Want parole? Hope that you’re the first in line.

The researchers found that at the start of the day, the judges were extremely generous, granting parole as high as 65-70% of the time.

However, as time went by, and when they started to become tired from all that decision making, the success rate for parole dropped steadily and eventually to zero.

Now, here’s another surprising bit.

After the judges had a lunch break, the success rates immediately shot back up to 65%, before slowly starting to decline again.

And after a second break, the success rates once again went back to the 65% mark, but this time, it fell sharply to zero, likely because the judges were worn out from decision fatigue.

This means that a prisoner who committed a grave crime, but is scheduled to appear before the judge in the morning may get a better chance of cutting short his sentence than someone who committed a petty crime, but was unfortunately scheduled to appear later in the day.

The Surprising Truth Behind Why We Make Bad Decisions

(Source: “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions”, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences)

Why does this happen?

This is a phenomenon that happens to virtually everyone.

You consume a little willpower each time you make a decision. And harder decisions consumer more willpower than easier ones.

Willpower is like a muscle – it WILL get tired if you use it too often.

And as the judges get worn out during the course of the day, their brains started to slow down, and hence, they deny more parole appeals.

If you think about it, this is actually a good thing for society.

If the judges sense that they aren’t at their peak mental state, it’s easier to simply deny every parole request and leave it for another day, when they’re more refreshed than to debate whether or not they should grant it.

Everyone suffers from decision fatigue.

That’s why, if you choose to rely solely on your iron willpower to accomplish your goals, you’ll often find that it’s much easier said than done. And sometimes, it’s just downright impossible.

What can you do about it?

Fortunately, your life doesn’t have to be controlled by it. Here’re three ways you can overcome decision fatigue, and hopefully, make better decisions in your life:

1. Make important decisions early during the day

If you’re tired, you just can’t make good decisions. Period.

As you think back on your life you’ll notice that you tend to make bad decisions later during the day, or when you were tired.

And here’s what most people do the first thing in the morning: Checking emails

Although it may seem like a menial task, checking emails first thing in the morning saps your willpower like a sponge in water.

You’re constantly making many small decisions – to reply, to delete, to archive, action required, etc.

And checking emails also tend to lead to mindless browsing on the web, and before you know it, a full hour has passed without you doing any productive work.

What an awesome way to start the day, huh?

Case in point: Your morning time is precious, use it wisely.

2. Eat!

Although your brain weighs only 2% of your total body weight, it consumes 20% of your daily calorie intake.

Your brain runs on glucose; it’s the fuel that powers your most important organ.

That’s why the judges were able to make better decisions notably after the meal breaks.

Besides allowing for them to take a break, they’re also replenishing their glucose supply by consuming food.

And this is also the reason why most diets fail.

Now, controlling what you eat requires A LOT of willpower – and dieters can all attest to this.

But here’s where the logic goes out of the window.

You usually control what you eat when you’re hungry (i.e. your glucose level is low). And this requires a whole lot of willpower (which runs on glucose).

That’s why most people fail to stick to any diet that heavily restricts any type of food for the long term.

So, here’s what you need to do if you absolutely need to make a major decision later during the day, and there’s no way of deferring it. Eat.

3. Make less decisions

Few of us have jobs where we absolutely have to make that many decisions.

So how do you make less decisions?

Firstly, you make less decisions by setting up a rule.

Your rule may say that if x happens, I’ll do y.

For example, if you’re someone who is easily distracted by social media, make a rule that says: If you’re working, log out of Facebook. (You can check it during your breaks if you want)

It’s extremely difficult NOT to get distracted if the Facebook tab is always open.

Every time you see that tab or hear the Facebook notification alert, you need to use up some willpower to decide if you would give into that distraction.

The second thing you can do is to make a commitment.

Just before you fall asleep, or early in the morning, spend a couple of minutes and write a general timetable for the day.

That way, you don’t have to constantly decide what to do. You just follow whatever you’re written.

Important: Follow your rules and stick to your plan. It just doesn’t work otherwise.

Image Credits:

Share this post

Shawn Lee

Shawn is a writer for When he's not writing, he enjoys reading about the latest in psychology and personal development. Beneath his reserved demeanour, he's secretly a fanboy who goes crazy whenever he sees his favourite idols. He also loves anime, music and everything Japanese.

No comments

Add yours