A few months ago, I blogged about a disturbing study of Israeli parole decisions that strongly suggested that judges made much more sympathetic decisions early in the session, and that they appeared to reset their sympathy with some food. There was also speculation about the causes and solutions.
Recently the New York Times Magazine ran an article that suggests that causation, or at least solution, is simple — glucose. After first reporting a number of studies on decision fatigue and ego depletion, the article went on:
. . . researchers at [Roy] Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.
The article concludes with some thoughts that should be useful to judges — and to innovators:
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
I am going to repeat that last line:
“The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
Update from Sept 7: Judge David Ortley from Montana points out the value of this data for assistaing juries in keeping attention and focus. He reports that he will make sure that jurors get water and snacks “to ensure they don’t suffer ego depletion.”