A marketing presentation at the University of Minnesota’s business school last week had me furiously taking notes, not because of the marketing insight but because of what sounded like terrific life advice.

The wisdom came from Kathleen Vohs, the first of two presenters that day. She was clearly no stranger to this audience made up of marketing executives, Carlson School of Management colleagues and students, judging by the whooping and hollering that followed her introduction.

Marketing happens to be what she teaches, but she has at least one foot in psychology and neuroscience. She has had lots of research interests but might be best known for working on the problem people seem to have with getting worn down by making decisions.

As she described it, people do want choices in their lives and will be unhappy if someone tries to limit them. On the other hand, the very act of choosing is taxing. And people can quickly burn out through a limited capacity to make good decisions and end up fuzzyheaded.

Once making all of these decisions has worn people down, a problem frequently called decision fatigue, it’s a sure bet that their willpower is depleted, too. Decision fatigue and loss of self control are very closely related.

One of the ways Vohs demonstrated a relationship between self control and decisionmaking was in a simple experiment she described, to see how long students could keep their arms in an aquarium filled with ice and water. This was a mostly harmless way to measure pain tolerance and willpower.

Students from one group were asked to make a bunch of product decisions before sticking their arms in the tank. Another group had no choices to make. As you maybe guessed, the volunteers who had made the product choices pulled their arms out a lot sooner than the other volunteers.

This phenomenon of crumbling self-control is what could explain why, after a trying day of rapid-fire decisions at work along with a quick trip to Target, someone could come home and put away a full box of Girl Scout cookies before dinner without really thinking about it.

The marketers hearing this talk quickly learned that decision fatigue isn’t some sort of rare opportunity, that chance to hit somebody with a pitch when they are most vulnerable. Decision fatigued consumers may put off making a buying decision altogether, maybe by sticking with the default option rather than paying for an upgrade.

But the better question is for consumers, and it’s what to do to keep from ending each day with a diminished capacity to choose wisely. That’s a problem the professor addressed, too, and the first thing to do is stop thinking that self control and decisionmaking stamina are muscles that get stronger through rigorous exercise.

“In the studies that we’ve done with individuals where we track them over several weeks,” she said, “what we find is that the best thing to help people make better decisions and use self-control is to take action to avoid making decisions and using self-control.”

More awareness of all the decisions that get made through the day seems like a great place to start, as most people make far more decisions than they realize. Vohs began her presentation by asking how many food-related decisions people had already made that day. The average response seemed to be around eight, and surveys show that people think they may make six to 12 food-related decisions a day.

It turns out, Vohs said, that the actual number of food-related decisions in an average day is around 225.

Think about it, she said, we are not choosing just what to eat, but how much, where to get it, whether to eat it cold or warm it up, whether to keep half a sandwich for later, and so on. “Or one of my personal favorites,” she said, “over the sink or in the car.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg certainly knows all about this, as it’s not just some personal quirk that has him coming to work each day wearing the same thing, a gray T-shirt and jeans or a hoodie and jeans. Quickly scanning dozens of images of him on Google for at least one exception, there is actually one of him wearing a sport coat — over a gray T-shirt.

Zuckerberg once described choosing what to wear for work or what to eat for breakfast as just the kind of “silly” decisions he tries to avoid making.

Vohs said professors who are involved in this research take decision fatigue seriously. What to order at a coffee shop could easily turn into lots of individual decisions, seeing as Starbucks has famously claimed to offer 87,000 beverage options. So when Vohs goes to a coffee shop she has two default options.

A research colleague at another university takes that thinking to a whole new level, by using a random number generator to pick that day’s coffee shop.

On the way back to the office after this presentation, the thought occurred to me that I’ve almost certainly misunderstood what’s happening inside the heads of the most highly disciplined people I’ve observed in life. These are the admirable kind who always eat healthy foods at lunch, seem to never skip a workout, leave happy hour after just one beer and never complain of financial troubles.

It’s now apparent that they are not consistently good decisionmakers and don’t possess some sort of iron will.

They had instead developed habits to take over a big chunk of the daily activities that many of us have to decide every day — so they aren’t really making decisions at all.

That also meant, of course, that when the time came to make a choice about something that really mattered, they probably had plenty of capacity left to choose wisely.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302