Deciding what to decide is no easy task

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With warm and sunny days becoming more frequent, do you struggle to stay motivated to work throughout the day?

I sure do!

During the summer I often argue with myself: should I keep working or take a break and go outside to take advantage of the beautiful weather?

More often than not, I keep working until something tells me that’s its time for a break, and I get to enjoy the sun.

But what’s that something inside me that tells me why I should keep working or when to take a break?

The basics

We make decisions every day. Yet, some - like this one - are harder than others. But, what do we mean by “making a decision” anyway?

Simply put, deciding involves comparing and contrasting each of our options, in order to pick the one with the greatest benefits and the fewest costs. Sometimes, there is a clear winner, like choosing between multiplying 541 by 3 and listening to your favorite music. While solving the multiplication is likely hard and not very interesting (few benefits, high costs) listening to your favorite music is both entertaining and relaxing (many benefits, few costs).

In contrast, other cost-benefit analyses don’t have a clear winner, and these are the decisions we struggle with. Should I take a break to enjoy the sun or stay hard at work?

On the one hand, studying means you’re more likely to pass your exam (benefit) but it also means missing out on a perfect day in the sun (cost). On the other hand, if you opt to enjoy the balmy weather, you may have a great time (benefit) but you also risk failing your exam (cost).

While you could decide either way, it seems wiser to keep studying and enjoy the sun later when it doesn’t involve such a downside. So, with some struggle and perhaps a disappointed look on your face, you decide to keep working.

But that’s only half the story. There is something else that makes this decision hard to make: we don’t like to think hard!

Avoiding mental effort image

Studying for long hours is hard! You have to focus in order to fully understand all there is to know about calculus, or to commit an exhaustive list of psychology definitions to memory. Beyond that, you have to keep focusing, ideally with minimal interruptions, in order to be successful in your studying. This is even harder!

Similar to physical effort, cognitive effort (i.e., thinking hard) is intrinsically costly in terms of our mental resources, and therefore we tend to avoid it when we can.

Factoring this in, the choice to go outside to soak up the sun starts to look better and better right? Unfortunately, for most of us, this simply makes the decision between memorizing what the cocktail effect is and going for a bike ride more difficult.

So, what wins? Your desire to avoid cognitive effort or your desire to pass your exam? In my case, this is where I start to truly argue with myself.

Recharging our battery battery

There is one last piece to the puzzle, and it’s a big one: we can’t engage in mental effort forever.

After several hours studying for an exam, you just cannot seem to focus anymore, regardless of how hard you try. Suddenly, the physics concepts that you were starting to understand no longer make sense or you simply cannot seem to memorize a single last linguistic definition.

In other words, you can’t engage in cognitive effort forever without needing a break. Luckily, this means that, sooner or later, you will not only deserve your break but will actually need it!

Interestingly, researchers don’t completely understand why we need these breaks.

One possibility is that we run out of mental resources. Your brain’s cognitive effort battery level may simply decrease over time, eventually getting close to empty. With very little cognitive resources remaining, we fail to continue to think hard, feeling the need to take a break to do something less cognitively demanding.

Another possibility is that the time we have spent studying makes us reconsider taking a break, which now does not seem as negative as it once did. After hours studying for your calculus, you have likely committed some concepts to memory, and therefore don’t fear failing as much as you originally did, making the bike ride a great option, especially if you can’t focus anymore anyway.

Deciding what to decide can sometimes be irritating or feel downright impossible. While curious cognitive scientists still don’t fully understand how we make hard decisions, we seem to do so just fine.

So, trust yourself; your cognition has got your back when it comes to deciding what to decide.

About me
Alexa I am a doctoral candidate in Experimental Psychology. I hold a BA in Psychology from McGill University and received my Master’s degree in Experimental Psychology at Concordia University. I am also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Concordia’s Journal of Accessible Psychology (CJAP) as well as the Co-Founder and Liaison for Concordia’s Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience (CJPN).

I examine how and why decision-making strategies changes across the lifespan. My work aims to understand the neural mechanisms behind these changes in order to support the more complex strategies in children and the elderly. My doctoral research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) as well as by Concordia University.

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Alexa Ruel
Alexa Ruel
PhD Candidate

My research interests include decision-making strategies and cognitive control changes across the lifespan.

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