Creative brainstorming and creating value are generally seen as hallmarks of good mediation and negotiation process. The standard wisdom goes: the more options on the table, the better the chances of a “wise agreement.” Generating multiple options for resolution is especially encouraged in negotiations with integrative potential that include multiple, complex issues. But with so many decisions for the parties to make, can you have too much of a good thing? In other words, might parties in complex negotiations be susceptible to what scientists call “decision fatigue”?
Researchers in the fields of social psychology and neuroscience have coined the term “decision fatigue” to explain a mental process that reduces a person’s capacity to make good decisions. The concept emerged from broader research focused on willpower and self-control, which was summarized in a recent book by New York Times science columnist John Tierney and Florida State University Social Psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin, 2011). Let’s explore the practical implications of their work for mediators and negotiators.
In an allusion to Freud’s idea that the “ego” constrains the passions, Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” to refer to the taxing effect of self-regulation on our brains. In a series of experiments, Baumeister and his collaborators showed that we expend mental energy to exert willpower and that over time this results in a kind of mental fatigue. Baumeister’s initial experiments required participants to engage in a self-regulating task like suppressing tears while watching a sad movie or resisting the temptation to eat a freshly baked cookie. Following this challenge, participants were less able to carry out a second task also requiring self-discipline, like solving a challenging puzzle or squeezing a handgrip.
Baumeister and colleagues later explored the application of ego depletion to decision making in a series of experiments that replicated the kinds of decisions shoppers make. They asked one group of participants to make a series of choices about pairs of items (i.e., pen or candle? scented or unscented candle? candle or t-shirt? black t-shirt or red t-shirt?). The control group spent the same amount of time contemplating all the same items without having to make any decisions. The participants who had to make choices were afterward less successful at a classic self-regulation task – holding their hands in ice water. The decision makers lasted an average of 28 seconds while the control group withstood an average of 67 seconds. The results suggest that making decisions is mentally tiring in the same way as other exertions of willpower.
These findings have been replicated in other behavioral studies where participants made a series of decisions about the purchase of custom-made suits, cars, and computers. These studies highlight further the consequences of decision fatigue by demonstrating that exerting mental energy on decision making reduces the quality of subsequent decisions. In a state of decision fatigue, participants were more likely to defer to the salesman or to stick with status quo, and were less likely to compromise or make tradeoffs. Evidence also suggests that when resources are scarce, the effects of decision fatigue are more pronounced. Through field experiments conducted in 20 of India’s poorest villages, Princeton economist Dean Spears found stronger decision-fatigue effects on poorer villagers. The mental trade-offs required when resources are scarce are more taxing. Those making decisions under constant conditions of resource scarcity have, in a sense, the deck stacked even higher against their willpower.
What might the implications of decision fatigue be for mediators? Certainly many mediations require parties to control impulses and make frequent decisions, often in circumstances of resource scarcity (i.e., how to divide the family’s overwhelming credit card debt, who takes over the mortgage for a house whose value has declined, how to split the assets of a declining business). The process is mentally taxing, and thanks to what we know about decision fatigue, we can now be quite sure that over time this will reduce the parties’ abilities to make good decisions. Of course self-determination is the watchword of mediation, and mediators are not responsible for the decisions parties make. But the research on decision fatigue also suggests an intriguing way that mediators can help the parties make better decisions.
The surprising answer was discovered by accident in Baumeister’s lab. Initially setting out to test whether one could build up willpower by first indulging in a pleasurable activity like eating, researchers found that consumption of sugary food countered the effects of decision fatigue. This result held up regardless of how good the food tasted. In a follow up experiment, researchers found that drinking lemonade sweetened with real sugar mitigated ego depletion and sometimes reversed it entirely, while drinking the same lemonade with artificial sweetener had no effect. Those participants who consumed glucose after a series of mentally taxing decisions subsequently made financial decisions oriented towards long-term benefits instead of quick payoffs. The researchers concluded that glucose is capable of restoring willpower.
Exploring the glucose findings further, Dartmouth professor Todd Heatherton and colleagues scanned images of participants’ brains while they looked at pictures of food both before and after they were subjected to an ego depletion task (suppressing laughter while watching a comedy video). They observed that under conditions of ego depletion, there was lower brain activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, associated with impulse control, and higher activity in the part known as the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center. When the participants were mentally fatigued, the images of food had stronger appeal and their brain activity suggested a reduced capacity for self-control. Heatherton and colleagues found that administering glucose reversed these effects on brain activity.
What that means is when your body’s glucose level is low, your brain stops controlling impulses and starts seeking quick rewards. The result is a stronger response to immediate rewards and a lower attention to long-term consequences. The experiments suggest that a quick dose of glucose can alter your brain activity in a way that helps you make decisions oriented to the long term.
How do these findings on glucose pertain to best practices in mediation process design? While breaking up a lengthy mediation over several sessions is already common practice, you may want to think about the time of day these sessions take place. Have you ever gotten cranky when you’ve been hungry? Mediating after the parties have had a good meal may increase their ability to control impulsive outbursts and to improve the quality of their decisions at the table. Arranging for food to be served during a break could be the best way to ensure that parties are in ideal condition to make decisions. If you can’t have food or meals, having candy or some other quick burst of glucose available may help parties avoid making decisions they will later come to regret. Remember that diet soda or artificial sweetener won’t do the trick, so it would be wise for the mediator to periodically push the candy dish in the parties’ direction!
Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Press).
Pinker, Steven (2011), “The Sugary Secret of Self-Control,” The New York Times, September 2.
Tierney, John (2011), “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue,” The New York Times, August 17.