Do You Suffer From Akrasia?

|

Go ahead. It's brain fuel.

Akrasia: weakness of will. In the New York Times Magazine yesterday, John Tierney has a fascinating article on the phenomenon of decision fatigue. Based his new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (co-authored with psychologist Roy Baumeister), the article reports that researchers have discovered making decisions is very, very tiring. As Tierney explains: 

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can't resist the dealer's offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It's different from ordinary physical fatigue — you're not consciously aware of being tired — but you're low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move….

Want to boost your willpower? Eat sugar. 

The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at 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.

Of course, if you are trying to use your willpower to diet, eating sugar is self-defeating. 

The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They're trapped in a nutritional catch-22:

1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.

2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

Tierney also reports that research finds that the poor generally have to make more trade-offs which may cause even more decision fatigue leading to bad choices. See also, my post about poverty and decision fatigure. 

Whole Tierney article can be found here

Advertisement

NEXT: Reason Morning Links: Libyan Endgame Edition

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Must resist urge to comment on NYTimesMag article.

    1. Your resistance will be enhanced by a nice donut with chocolate icing and sprinkes, you know.

  2. Is “not having dessert at lunch” really that much a test of willpower?

    1. I just can’t say no!

  3. I think Tierney just explained SugarFree’s whole life.

      1. More seriously, SF, wouldn’t this research imply diabetics are more likely to be decision challenged because of the blood sugar management issues? All of my wife’s relatives with diabetes have a spectacular history of poor decisions, but that may be culturally induced.

        Or you could, like, think harder and make more decisions to keep your glucose levels in check. So it really is a failure of will on your part…

        1. Where is White Idiot to explain to us the sugar/diabetes/agriculture/[CITY STATE] nexus?

        2. Since diabetics usually struggle to keep their sugar down (aka, blood sugar is high), diabetics should therefore be the most willful of people. (It doesn’t really work like that, so I’m just kidding.)

          Although, I will say, decision making does go to complete shit when your blood sugar is low or crashes. We can’t keep peanut butter in the house, because if my blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night, I’ll eat all the peanut butter I can. I once ate an entire jar, came to with no conscious memory of doing it, and then threw it all up.

          It’s just peanut butter, though. If there’s none around, I’ll usually eat a few crackers or drink some juice and be fine.

          1. Like you described, it could explain binge eating in the middle of the night when blood sugar gets low. A lot of people do that.

  4. Living requires exercising judgment and making decisions; poor, minorities hardest hit.

  5. This is a very strange conclusion, but I can kinda see it being the reason behind the urge to splurge. If you have spent a length of time making good financial decisions, it’s probably worth buying something extravagant as a release to avoid fatigue.

    1. Please, god, don’t let anyone from the government read this.

      1. Its okay, they don’t really make decisions, they just follow orders.

      2. Already got it. Your orders are being developed.

    2. “And you’ve made such GOOD financial decisions, we’re gonna let you buy…..someone else’s healthcare! And someone else’s food stamps! And someone else’s…abode! And…”

      Work it, work it!!

    3. ..it also explains why the rich get richer – they can afford to pay schmucks to make the hard decisions and cast off the negative effects on them.

  6. Living requires exercising judgment and making decisions; poor, minorities hardest hit.

  7. The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control ? and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it.

    I think the problem here is that the theoretical dieter is incrementalizing their decisions.

    When I go for a bike ride, I don’t “decide” to pedal each time my foot comes back to the top of the arc. I make one decision to pedal, and then just keep going.

    Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t see each individual food item that passes in front of my eyes as an individual decision.

    1. Yeah, you’re weird.

      Me, I minimize the number of decisions involved/food items encountered by not buying stuff at the grocery store that I know I shouldn’t be eating. If I don’t buy that bag of Cheetos, I don’t have to decide not to eat any every time I open the pantry door.

      That way, I get about 90% of my food deciding out of the way in about an hour per week.

      1. Typically I’ll make one decision a day:

        “I’ll have X for lunch at Y o’clock.”

        Then I don’t think about it again until Y o’clock. Even if I’m hungry, I don’t start making additional decisions – I just stick with the first one and wait until Y o’clock.

        Then I eat whatever the wife puts in front of me for dinner. The only decision I have to make there is “Remember to heap extravagant praise on whatever you are eating”.

        So I am somehow making routine-based thinking and extreme passivity substitute for “will”.

        That’s a heck of a substitution. Where else can you successfully replace something with its exact opposite?

        1. “Yeah, honey! This cyanide is absolutely deli–*hurk*”

          1. It could happen.

            1. Credit where due
              And derision, too!

        2. So I am somehow making routine-based thinking and extreme passivity substitute for “will”.

          Me, too.

          I’m lucky that my current office does not have some kind of open-access foraging center in the break room. Because every time I walk past food, I think about grabbing some and have to make a decision.

          1. Try working for a big company that has multiple cafeterias throughout the campus — open all the time, just step right in for a quick snack.

            The cute part is haveing the “eat healthy” posters on the wall next to the pastries.

            1. Being a cheap bastard helps out immensely with this. Do I want to spend money? No. No snack for me.

            2. Googleplex?

              1. Just another mundane evil corporation.

        3. I am somehow making routine-based thinking and extreme passivity substitute for “will”.

          Which, if you think about it, is about 99% of the justification behind all kinds of statist measures. To wit, if most people are on autopilot about their decisions, then they do no think through the consequences all the way, and someone with an “objective” mind and a disinterest in the subject may make a better decision than you.

          Mind, I buy none of that, but that sentence right there really is how you explain most state interventions into the freedom of contract.

    2. Not weird, exactly, but it means you have an orientation to aggregate that decision that many of us don’t. It’s trivial in the case of pedaling, because nobody sees much of a product from one stroke of a pedal — it doesn’t get you much of anywhere on its own — but in the case of eating, you get a payoff instantly, every bite, that doesn’t need to be aggregated to have value.

  8. This sounds like another load of bullshit. What is a “decision”? Is deciding to sit by the pool reading a book a “decision” that needs glucose and tires you? Is deciding to buy the cheaper detergent at the store a “decision” that tires you?

    These studies are so fucking stupid.

    1. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

      1. Thank you, Geddy Lee.

        “You see this, Randy? When someone like Alex Lifeson gives you a fuckin’ shirt to put on, you’re putting the fuckin’ thing on!”

      2. We’ve taken care of everything, the books you read, the songs you sing…the junk food that gives pleasure to your mind.

        1. What did you dream? It’s all right, we told you what to dream.

      3. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

        Yeah, but it can be easier. Say you see two desserts at the restaurant – the mango sticky rice or the ice cream egg roll. You can agonize about the pros and cons of ordering one over the other, and literally spend hours on your decision.

        Or, you can pick one really quickly. Or, you can flip a coin. Or, you can order both. Or, you can go with whatever you didn’t have before.

        Having loose (or strong) criteria which determine outcomes without necessarily rationalizing on the spot is almost obviously less fatiguing than otherwise. What’s not intuitive is that it also is known to have an effect on downstream moral judgement.

  9. Episiarch: You might want to “decide” to read the article before dismissing it. Give in.

    1. BITCH FIGHT!

    2. Meh, I’m with Epi on this one. Sounds like another “life is too hard, let us decides for you” meme.

    3. It reads like every other “study”, Ron. I’m still waiting on an answer as to what a “decision” is.

      1. Episiarch, I agree they are being a bit vague (especially in discriminating/merging “decision” and “temptation”), but basically it’s the subject that determines what’s a decision. Choosing to buy a certain shirt might be an effort for some people but nearly automatic for others. Subjectively I can relate to the fatigue they’re describing.

        Also they’re not necessarily saying eat a bunch of sugar. From the original article:

        A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control … but it’s just a temporary solution. The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.

        Incidentally most diet plans recommend many small meals of slow-burning food sources to keep sugar levels stable (though not for the reasons discussed in this article). I have successfully done sustained dieting, but it does work best when you minimalize the number of daily diet decisions as much as possible.

    4. Your ability to avoid harmful sugary snacks will be greatly enhanced after eating just one bowl of Frosted Sugar Bombs! Now, with more slurm. And electrolytes.

      1. Sugar bombs…there used to be a strip club nearby called the Sugar Bomb…who knew?

  10. Too bad this article doesn’t delve into the role of stimulants in “mental fatigue”…
    I skip croissants at breakfast because I have a cup of coffee w/ 4 sugars in my system. I have no desire to eat anything until lunchtime…

  11. I can’t decide what to post.

    1. I decided to reply but that took my last ounce of will. Now I can’t decide what to reply with.

  12. Trust us, donuts are NOT brain fuel.

    1. +1 tazing.

  13. Do You Suffer From Akrasia?

    Yeah – I can’t stop reading and posting in H&R…

    I am one of little will! Ohhh, woe!

    1. I, for one, HATE those fucking Akrasians.

      1. We’ve always been at war with Akrasia.

  14. I knew it wasn’t my fault that I was getting fatter!

  15. This also implies my choice of a diet coke as a refreshing beverage in the afternoon may not be the wisest one. Here I thought the caffeine made up for the lack of sugar.

    1. Just makes you jittery and compulsive.

    2. Here I thought the caffeine made up for the lack of sugar.

      There is nothing caffeine cannot do.

      1. Beg to differ. There’s no such thing as “Caffeine Goggles”.

        Seriously – if you had to pick between caffeine and alcohol for the rest of your life, which would you choose.

        Not even close, for me.

        1. Why choose? There’s a reason Irish Coffee, Rum and Coke, Redbull Vodka, etc. are popular. Booze and caffeine – better together!

          1. Four-Loko, bitches!

        2. I’d detox through the caffeine withdrawal and keep drinking.

          1. Having been forcibly detoxed from caffeine by dint of a prolonged hospital stay, I can only say that the alcohol hangover plus the detox headache/migraine is not something I would voluntarily undergo. It would have to be quite a bender to cover up the detox symptoms. Basically, I see a lot of puking involved in this scenario.

  16. *eating whole fucking bag of donuts*

    I’ve decided I like donuts, and have the willpower to go ahead and eat them. Yummy.

    1. I need to eat a whole bag o’ donuts so I have enough willpower not to diet the rest of the day.

      Also, “Ronald Bailey! You so Akrasia!”

  17. I’m going to eat one of those giant snickers bars before I walk into a car dealership next time.

    Screw it, I’m going to eat one right now.

  18. I guess children actually benefit from soda in school.

  19. Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families

    Here’s a hint. If many of your colleagues and relatives get angry at you, it’s probably because you keep psychoanalyzing them and acting like you know their minds better than they do.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.