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Choices Sap Your Stamina, Self Control: Study

Experiments point to the brain-draining effects of decision-making

FRIDAY, April 18 (HealthDay News) -- From "paper or plastic" to 31 flavors of ice cream, people's lives are full of choices. Now, new research suggests that facing too many decisions can sap your stamina, your ability to stay focused and even maintain self-control.

A number of experiments have shown that people faced with a variety of choices had more trouble later when they had to figure out whether to take risky actions.

"If people have a day or period of time in which they are making many choices, they will be vulnerable to low self-control," said study lead author Kathleen Vohs, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. This could lead "to overeating, overdrinking, overspending, losing one's temper, and procrastination."

Vohs and her colleagues created several experiments to gauge the effects of multiple choices. Their findings are published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In one experiment, 18 women were told to choose among a variety of products, including T-shirts, scented candles, shampoos and others. Another 20 women didn't make choices but were asked to consider their preferences.

Both groups were then asked to drink an unpleasant-tasting concoction -- an orange drink mixed with vinegar and water -- in return for a nickel for each ounce consumed.

"We found that when people had been making choices, they drank less than when people had just been thinking about their preferences," Vohs said.

This suggests that those who didn't make choices had more capacity for "self control," Vohs said.

In other experiments, the researchers found that making choices made it tougher for participants to perform well on a math test, avoid distractions and take action regarding a malfunctioning videotape.

Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, said the study is "suggestive but not conclusive" in its findings.

It's true, however, that choosing is difficult, he added. "Think of those fancy restaurants that have a small menu. It's often refreshing not to have to read through eight pages of choices. Having said that, lack of choice is very constraining," he said.

Overall, "freedom means a lot of choice, but too much can be overwhelming, even outside the choice set itself," Zak said. "This adds fuel to the idea that humans have evolved for simplicity, at least in the short run."

However, the brain's cognitive powers probably "reset" themselves pretty fast after making a choice, Zak said, adding, "My guess is on the order of minutes."

Brad Sagarin, an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, agreed that the brain-sapping effects of choice-making aren't permanent. "The basic idea is that self-regulation is a limited resource that can be temporarily exhausted, and that making choices is one activity that can exhaust this resource. However, the resource replenishes with time," he said.

So what should the choice-challenged do?

"Keep in mind that the process of making choices is not cost-free," Sagarin said. "It can exhaust an important resource that we might well need for other pursuits. Choices are an inevitable aspect of modern life. But this research suggests that we might not want to take on additional choices unnecessarily."

More information

To learn more about the human brain, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D., McKnight Land-Grant Professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., director, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif.; Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb; April 2008, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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