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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Too Many Choices Exhaust the Brain

New Study Shows That Act of Choosing Leads to Mental Fatigue, Decreased Productivity
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 17, 2008 -- Do you find yourself in a brain fog after choosing which flavor to put in your morning latte? Don't blame it on being sleepy. A new study shows that while mulling over a few options may weigh heavily on your mind, finally choosing one may just plain wear you out.

Study author Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota's marketing department, and researchers from several other universities have determined that making choices, as opposed to just thinking about options, can be mentally draining. Those with too many choices -- good or bad -- have trouble remembering to take their medicine and staying focused on everyday tasks.

The findings are based on seven experiments designed to test how the simple act of choosing or not choosing influences a person's ability to remain focused and productive. The study involved 328 participants and 58 customers at a shopping mall.

For one experiment, researchers asked some participants to make choices about consumer products, college courses, or class materials, while others had to consider various options without making decisions. Afterward, the participants had to place their hands in ice water or finish a healthy but unpleasantly flavored drink. Those who earlier made choices had a harder time staying focused and finishing the tasks than those who only had to think about their options.

Additional experiments involved math skills and choices. Participants who had to make important choices regarding college coursework had more errors on the study's math test than those who didn't have to make such decisions. They also appeared more distracted. Vohs' team found that the choice makers spent less time solving the math problems and more time playing video games or reading than the other group.

Vohs' shopping mall experiment could have many people recalculating their checkbooks. Shoppers reported how many decisions they made that day, and then had to solve simple math problems. Those that made the most choices earlier in the day performed the worst on the math test.

The study provides evidence that it is the act of making a choice, not weighing your options, that is mentally exhausting. "There is a significant shift in the mental programming that is made at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. Therefore, simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue," Vohs says in a news release. "Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing."

The findings are published in the April issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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