Decision Fatigue

Decision Fatigue



An August article in the New York Times “Do You Suffer From Decision-Fatigue?” highlights a topic that might be of interest to those involved in savings-led development: The article describes how Freud began this discussion long ago asserting that everyone has a finite amount of energy for exercising self-control, and that modern researchers have taken this theory a step further by showing how a barrage of decisions can wear people down, so much so that they ultimately make the wrong decision. 

Of particular interest to this readership might be these paragraphs:

Dean Spears, an economist at Princeton, offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages. Whether or not they bought the soap, the act of making the decision left them with less willpower, as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip. In the slightly more affluent villages, people’s willpower wasn’t affected significantly. Because they had more money, they didn’t have to spend as much effort weighing the merits of the soap versus, say, food or medicine.

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health.

If any of this analysis has value (I know – squeezing a hand grip seems like slim evidence for self-control – but let’s go with it for now) then its implications for savings groups may be relevant in two ways.

First, members of a savings groups already have made important decisions about the use of at least some of their cash. They already have decided to make some minimum regular payment toward various group funds. They no longer need to make those decisions on a daily or hourly  basis. The decision is made and now they must stick to it, else the group will come calling. One source of fatigue gone.

Second, members of savings groups can defer decisions about borrowing to a specific date and place, avoiding at least some of their borrowing as a daily decision.  Members know they can discuss their loan needs within their group, and in doing so postpone certain angst until meeting time. Another source of fatigue gone.

In both cases the group preserves the willpower of its members, which ordinarily would have been depleted had the member been forced to constantly decide how to dispose of or obtain cash.   

In Haiti, the Mutuelles are a key strategy for communities to overcome perpetual decision-making regarding the play of the Haitian lottery. Lottery stalls are ubiquitous and members are in a seemingly constant state of deciding when to play (there are many choices) and what numbers to play (also many choices). Their Mutuelles allow them to postpone lottery decisions: Members set aside funds for their savings groups at the beginning of each month or make steady payments throughout the month, thus averting savings, borrowing and gambling decisions, until such time that they can think more rationally, less impulsively, and less as the authors of this new book suggest, under the stress of decision fatigue.


Reader Comments (1) 

Kim, I wonder if the differing performance on the post-decision handgrip thingy between "the people in the 10 poorest villages" and the "slightly more affluent villages" has more to do with the enhanced physical wellbeing that results from the improved diet of the more affluent? Hmmm...

More importantly (to me), I have a niggle of concern this positing by Spears et al of a connection between continuing poverty and the combination of decision-fatigue and the erosion of "self-control" is just another 'the poor are the authors of their own misfortune' argument: "there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people" (!!!).

Whilst I'm not familiar with the multitude of studies that correlate (causally?) low self-control with the listed behaviours -- from which the disciplined middle-class is apparently immune -- I can accept that affluence removes any agonising over the choice between Gucci or Louis Vuitton.

Unfortunately, it's a short step to using this work to justify the 'pull themselves up by their own bootstraps' policy towards poverty elimination.

Mon, September 12, 2011 | Greg Pirie

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