Screens & decision fatigue: A modern behavioural problem?

Why did Steve Jobs wear the same thing every day? To avoid decision fatigue. In this article, Jethro Goodchild explores how ‘decision fatigue’ is exacerbated by our increasing access to screens screaming for our attention, taps and clicks. Read on to ponder the challenge and opportunity for insurance companies and actuaries in this quick and instinctive environment.  

“In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.”

Decades of research has been written about the concept of decision overload and the tiring mental challenges we face in making so many decisions in our daily lives. The average human is believed to make 35,000 decisions per day.

Concentrating on the big important decisions seems like common sense. There is a western phrase for it, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” but like many psychological biases if you dig a little deeper, there is a lot more under the surface and a large part of the problem takes place sub-consciously i.e. you don’t always realise it’s happening.

We all have limited energy and capacity each day to spend on the decisions we make so why waste effort on the little things? Isn’t it logical to use your brain power for those big decisions that really matter?

Herein lies the problem, we are behaviourally driven human beings with so much influence around us. Is the logical approach also the common approach or are we bombarded with so many small, quick, easy decisions that we focus on those, and shy away from the tough ones?

Just think about the number of decisions we make each day which are repetitive and use up our decision making energy. For example, what to wear, what to eat (meals & snacks), where to eat, how many coffees to drink, what to buy online. Then multiply those decisions tenfold when you need to decide with a partner, in a team or for a family. Suddenly you can see how larger important decisions get rushed through the decision making process. This is even before we get to the decisions we make in our job each day!

Rolf Dobelli highlights that “decision fatigue not only makes the next decision more difficult or ineffective but it impacts your willpower so the consequences can often be quite serious.” He talks about great concepts like “measuring willpower”, “willpower is like a battery” and “decision making is exhausting”. Some other effects include:

  • Low productivity,
  • Impulsive and quick decisions (“the advertising effect?”)
  • Uninformed decisions (“the ambiguity effect”)
  • Decision avoidance (such as making a big investment decision?)
  • Reduced willpower
  • Low resilience

 

As mentioned, this usually occurs sub-consciously as we drift into our daily mental routines.

Well I am wondering if this concept is evolving in our age of technology and screens. If you include the decisions we now make on screens each day, the number grows exponentially! Decision fatigue is becoming a much bigger problem impacting decision making and behaviour and is exacerbated by our wonderful world of access. Let me explain further.

Have you noticed what you do at the office (or at home) when faced with a challenging task or when you feel mentally tired? Before phones and the internet, I am sure we reached for a sip of coffee or a chat with a colleague. These days, where is our flight to safety? Does anyone reach for refuge in their phone or something online? I suspect the answer is yes. Given the range of social media and messaging apps, it’s almost certain you have a new message to read or some photos you can view. For sure there are some really easy decisions you can make there and on top of that you get a little dose of dopamine. That “feel good hormone” and all that attention is very addictive (which is a different behavioural challenge I will tackle in a separate paper!). Are screens bombarding us with an infinite set of easy decisions so we find ourselves searching them out as an escape from the difficult ones? Food for thought.

As an actuary working in the investment field I spend a lot of time reading and researching. I am constantly bombarded with research, headlines and media. This research access has grown exponentially in the past 20 years and sifting through the “spam” to find the real substance has become a learned skill. Overwhelming access to information is not unique to the investment field but across the profession. The age of screens is impacting the way we work as actuaries.

Before I continue on this line of thought I want to introduce a related behavioural problem because I think screens are catalysing two behavioural problems which feed off each other.

Attention fatigue is a neuro-psychological phenomenon that results from overuse of the brain’s inhibitory attention mechanisms, which handle incoming distractions while maintaining focus on a specific task.”

(Tip: If you are suffering from attention fatigue right now then please skip to the end for some suggested solutions! If not, please read on.)

Schlomo Bernatzi summarises this concept to perfection:

“Too much information leads to a scarcity of attention that is amplified by screens. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”[4]


We live in a modern internet world where we are completely overloaded with information and spoilt for choice. With that choice comes decisions and a constant and relentless pursuit of our attention. The choices are infinite – Where to go for holiday, which app to check or play with, which blog to follow, which chat message to respond to and which photos to post, like or comment on. Screens have truly created infinite possibilities and the new generation of Millennial’s who favour experiences over things have a historically unprecedented access to choice. For them, it’s normal, that’s all they know. What goes along with this is an unprecedented number of decisions to make and an unprecedented grab for our attention on a daily basis.

Social media knows this all too well by bombarding us (in very sophisticated ways and methods) with millions of opportunities to “click” or “tap” on anything which catches our eye. Screen real estate is dominated by advertising making us exposed to further decisions and we are sub-consciously influenced by decision fatigue and attention fatigue to a level of intensity like never before.

In my view, the internet and screens are like rocket fuel for decision fatigue and attention fatigue. This is shortening attention spans, and is a key driver of low productivity and poor decision making. The art of conversation is certainly being lost and patience is becoming a long lost skill!

Insurance companies are realising this challenge for their businesses. To sell insurance online and to the younger generation, insurers must overcome the shortening attention spans and need for speedy decisions.

Getting a customer’s attention, satisfying their needs and closing a sale in as few clicks as possible is a key challenge for an insurance company operating in the digital age.  

But wait there is more:

In Thinking Fast and Slow, the renowned psychologist and economist, Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of System 1 and System 2 for mental decision making. System 1 is the automatic, the intuitive and impulsive system which acts on gut feel and instinct.

System 2 is the effortful system which acts on mental calculation, concentration, reasoning and research.

Kahneman brilliantly refers to the “law of least effort” which applies to mental as well as physical exertion. “Where there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. Effort is at a cost, the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

He also notes that “self-control requires attention and effort”. Controlling thoughts and behaviours is one of the tasks that System 2 performs. A lazy or overloaded system 2 leads to “ego depletion” and we can succumb to bad behaviour and have trouble with even the simplest of tasks. “This leads to behaviours such as eating poorly, being impulsive, aggressive and impatient and performing poorly at cognitive tasks and logical decision making”. I think that a depleted or crowded out system 2 leads to an excess of impulsive and often poor behaviour online. Let’s be honest, I think we have all been witness to and/or partaken in different behaviours online. System 2 is being crowded out and Kahneman points out that lazy thinking and the excess use of System 1 makes us “more susceptible to biases in judgement”.

Within the framework that Kahneman puts forward, I am suggesting that screens and the internet are bombarding our System 1 and our System 2 is suffering from crowding out and exhaustion. We are almost forced every day to make a seemingly endless number of System 1 decisions due to the relentless pursuit of our attention that System 2 gets little chance and furthermore we are naturally inclined to gravitate towards the easier and quicker System 1 decisions anyway. Poor decisions and judgement are the likely outcome amongst all the other implications I have highlighted already.

So if this problem is real then what can we do about it? Here are my initial suggestions:

Possible solutions:

  • Like all problems and psychological bias, the first step is awareness. Acknowledge they exist and make them a conscious choice not a hidden bias in your decisions and behaviours;
  • Make hard decisions early in the day when you are fresh. Keep the easy stuff for when you are tired and mentally worn down;
  • Use a “To do list” to prioritise and allocate decisions/tasks to hard vs easy buckets;
  • Be aware of your mental fitness and fatigue. We all seem to know how physically fit we are but are you aware of your mental agility and readiness to cope with complex tasks and decisions? Do you do any mental exercises or practice to keep yourself agile and build resilience? Do you think about avoiding the short cut for solving problems and going back to first principles just to build your mental agility and fitness?
  • Manage your machines. Don’t take screens and the internet for granted. Be aware of the infinite distractions around you creating decision fatigue and a relentless pursuit of your attention. Know the impact it is having on your mental and decision making state of mind.


Last but not least: “Mens sana in corpore sano” in Latin translates as ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ (the phrase is widely used in sporting and educational contexts to express the theory that physical exercise is an important or essential part of mental and psychological well-being).[5] This may be a 2000 year old Latin proverb but Dr Wendy Suzuki, professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University has discovered the miraculous effects of exercise on the brain. Her research has revealed how a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention. “Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain”. Over the years I have often thought that mental and physical health are linked and it seems there is increasing evidence to support the theory.

Insurance companies and product actuaries need to embrace customers who are using System 1 thinking. Behaviour online is quick and instinctive, and products need to be tailored to meet a modern customer. This creates the challenge of selling the more complex investment/life insurance products to a generation that want quick solutions and value less human contact. Is the future of the insurance agent at risk as millennials demand less human contact and more digital solutions?

Decision fatigue and attention fatigue are modern behavioural challenges for individuals where self-awareness is the first crucial step.   The battle for scarce attention online will increase the challenge for insurance companies. They are now selling into a new customer dynamic where understanding online behaviour will be critical to success in a screen driven world.

References:

Rolf Dobelli – The art of thinking clearly
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking fast and slow
Shlomo Bernartzi – The Smarter Screen, Surprising Ways to influence and improve online behaviour
Wendy Suzuki – The brain changing benefits of exercise
Dr. Joel Hoomans, Leading Edge Journal – Mar 2015
Wikipedia (of course!)

CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.

Comments

No comments.


Comment on the article (Be kind)

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.