Most of us have felt the exhaustion of decision-making in the age of the pandemic.
Do I have to travel to see an elderly relative? Can I see my friends and if so is it ok inside? Mask or no mask? Test or no test? What day? What brand? Is it safe to send my child to daycare?
Questions that once seemed trivial have come to bear the moral weight of a life or death choice. So it may help to know (as you toss and turn if you want to cancel your non-refundable holiday) that your struggle has a name: decision fatigue.
In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote an influential book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” The basic premise is this: whether it’s choosing your favorite ice cream, a new pair of sneakers, or a family doctor, choice can be a wonderful thing. But too many choices can leave us paralyzed and less satisfied with our long-term decisions.
And that’s just for the little things.
Faced with a flood of tough health and safety choices during a global pandemic, Schwartz suggests, we could be experiencing a unique type of burnout that could profoundly affect our brain and mental health.
Schwartz, professor emeritus of psychology at Swarthmore College and visiting professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the interactions between psychology, morality and economics for 50 years. He spoke with KHN’s Jenny Gold about the decision fatigue so many Americans are feeling two years into the pandemic and how we can deal with it. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is decision fatigue?
We all know the choice is good. It’s part of what it means to be an American. So if the choice is good, then more must be better. Turns out that’s not true.
Imagine that when you go to the supermarket, not only do you have to choose from 200 kinds of cereals, but you have to choose from 150 kinds of crackers, 300 kinds of soups, 47 kinds of toothpastes, etc. If you really went on your shopping spree in order to get the most out of everything, you would starve before you were done or die of fatigue. You can’t live your life that way.
When you overwhelm people with options, instead of freeing them, you paralyze them. They can’t pull the trigger. Or, if they pull the trigger, they’re less satisfied, because it’s so easy to imagine that an alternative they didn’t choose would have been better than the one they did.
Q: How has the pandemic affected our ability to make decisions?
Immediately after the pandemic, all the choices we faced disappeared. The restaurants weren’t open so you didn’t have to decide what to order. Supermarkets weren’t open, or they were too dangerous, so you didn’t have to decide what to buy. All of a sudden, your options have been restricted.
But, as things have calmed down, you kind of revert to a version of your previous life, except [with] a whole new set of problems that none of us had thought of before.
And the kinds of decisions you’re talking about are extremely high-stakes decisions. Should I see my parents during the holidays and put them in danger? Should I let my child go to school? Should I meet with friends outdoors and shiver, or am I willing to risk sitting indoors? These are not decisions we practiced with. And after making that decision on Tuesday, you’re faced with it again on Thursday. And, as far as you know, everything changed between Tuesday and Thursday. I think it’s created a world that’s just impossible for us to negotiate. I don’t know if it’s possible to go to bed with peace of mind.
Q: Can you explain what happens in our brain?
When we make choices, we exercise a muscle. And just like in the gym, when you do reps with weights, your muscles get tired. When this decision muscle is tired, we can no longer do it.
Q: We’ve heard a lot about more people feeling depressed and anxious during the pandemic. Do you think decision fatigue exacerbates mental health issues?
I don’t think you need decision fatigue to explain the explosion of mental health issues. But this places an additional burden on people.
Imagine you decide that starting tomorrow, you will think about every decision you make. OK, you wake up in the morning: Should I get out of bed? Or do I have to stay in bed another 15 minutes? Should I brush my teeth or not brush my teeth? Should I get dressed now or should I get dressed after I’ve had my coffee?
What the pandemic has done for many people is make routine decisions and make them non-routine. And it puts a kind of pressure on us that builds up as the day goes on, and then here comes tomorrow, and you find them all again. I don’t see how it could not contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.
Q: As the pandemic continues, are we getting better at making these decisions? Or does compounded exhaustion make us less able to weigh options?
There are two possibilities. The first is that we strengthen our decision-making muscles, which means we can tolerate more decisions in a day than before. Another possibility is that we just adapt to the state of stress and anxiety and make all sorts of bad decisions.
In principle, it should be true that when faced with a radically new situation, you learn to make better decisions than you were able to make when it all started. And I have no doubt that this is true for some people. But I also doubt that’s true in general, that people make better decisions than they were in the beginning.
Q: What can people do to avoid burnout?
First, make your life easier and follow a few rules. And rules don’t have to be perfect. [For example:] “I’m not going to eat inside at a restaurant, period.” You will miss opportunities that could have been quite pleasant, but you have made a decision on the table. And you can do that for a lot of things the same way that when we shop we buy Cheerios every week. You know, I’m gonna think about a lot of things I buy at the grocery store, but I’m not gonna think about breakfast.
The second thing you can do is stop asking yourself, “What’s the best thing I can do?” Instead, ask yourself, “What can I do?” » Which option will lead to good enough results most of the time? I think that takes a lot of the pressure off. There is no guarantee that you will not make mistakes. We live in an uncertain world. But it’s much easier to find good enough than to find the best.
This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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