Decisions, Decisions…. Fatigue.

Decisions, Decisions…. Fatigue.

iModerate Author

Aug 23, 2011

Share It


Recently, I came across an interesting New York Times article on decision fatigue. The article describes and supports an idea that all of us have personally experienced at one time or another – making a lot of decisions in a day is just plain tiring. Whether these are decisions like what snack to eat or what options to include in a car purchase, any decisions made use up mental energy, and affect later behavior and choices.

When people make choice after choice and decision fatigue sets in, they often stop carefully considering the decisions they make. How does this affect their actual choices? Frequently they choose the path of least resistance. To that end, if defaults are offered, they tend to just go along with them. But when no defaults are offered, they can sometimes make a reckless decision — like the tempting candy bar in the checkout lane — because they don’t want to expect more energy to mull over the repercussions.

This got me thinking about how this concept can be useful to us in the market research industry. Our respondents are subject to the same sort of decision fatigue when participating in our projects as they in other areas of their lives. How, though, can being aware of this improve our projects, and thus our results? Perhaps we should place more importance on reaching respondents earlier in the day, before they’ve used up their stores of willpower on day-to-day decisions at work, school, or the grocery store — especially for quantitative studies requiring a lot of straight decision-making and choices.

However, even though it’s not as black and white, qualitative research studies such as the conversations I have with respondents every day as a moderator, do incorporate a good deal of decision-making… Sure, I’m “only” asking them about their feelings and reactions, instead of asking them to pick A or B, but doesn’t that draw on their store of mental energy too? Not only am I asking them to take a closer look at their reactions than they may typically, but I’m requiring them to decide how best to describe this largely internal process in a way that I, a stranger, will understand. Then I ask them to clarify their responses, to give me more information about what leads to their reactions and feelings…

How might decision fatigue impact how willing they are to allow me to lead them to the deeper levels that we consider paydirt? And in turn, what can we do to mitigate this? Is it as simple as fielding studies earlier in the day, or are there other techniques we can employ to decrease respondents’ decision fatigue?

iModerate Author

  • Alex

    I like to think of our conversations as discussions that don’t lead to succinct decisions, but possibly more towards moments of self actualization. Or at least that the fatigue associated with decisions is correlated with consciously making a decision where in a conversation the decision is fluid and not as conscious . Consider this potential conversation:

    Mod: You said you liked the commercial, what are some reasons that you liked it?
    Guest: I liked the use of blue for the woman’s dress
    Mod: What about the color blue do you like?
    Guest: (SELF ACTUALIZATION) My mom used to wear blue a lot and we are best friends, the woman in the ad reminded me of her and the blue added to that.

    I think that decision fatigue can be combated by appropriate questioning techniques so that the respondent is “conversing”, rather than “deciding.”

  • Chelsea

    In the cases when a respondent comes to a realization like in your example, I think that changes the entire feel of things… Personally, when I have an epiphany (no matter how small) like that, I feel like I get revitalized, which would at least mitigate decision fatigue, if not overpower it completely. However, as much as I’d love to think that can happen in every conversation, the truth is we don’t get to see that very often.

    And again, making our conversations more — well, conversational — is great, too, but we still need to be able to direct it enough to achieve our research objectives… which, as you know, is a delicate balance. We’re always working on fine-tuning it, though. 🙂

  • Brian

    What immediately came to mind for me when you related the article to our wonderful world of market research was the initial survey respondents take before our ‘conversation’. Obviously some jobs are better suited/more open for a mod and respondent to converse. Others are so specific, it seems the only way to retain objectivity is the direct them. The survey, however, seems like a variable worth controlling.

    Perhaps some of the more annoyed or unengaged people have experienced enough decision fatigue and ego depletion from survey questions they mentally check out in defense of more decisions. The time between starting the survey and finishing the chat is a great example of the Rubicon to me. Perhaps one of the ways we can keep respondents from staying on the Gaul side is cutting down survey length/difficulty.

    PS – Going even further… I wonder if a less tech savvy person has more decision fatigue just from navigating their PC through the necessary hoops to get them through the research process… all the while worrying how they’ll receive their incentives.

  • Chelsea

    Agreed about the survey length impacting how much ‘oomph’ respondents have left for our conversation with them… And I really like your point about respondents who are less tech savvy — that’s an aspect I hadn’t considered, and I’m sure you’re exactly right.

iModerate’s research process and knowledgeable personnel assist us in gaining an in-depth understanding of the research topic at hand. We have been impressed with the quality of reporting and insights generated by the iModerate team.

Jessica Kettler, Manager of Online Research, John Deere