Science has now proven that this is true, even when the decisions are very important. John Tierney reported on research conducted by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University in a recent New York Times article. Their research showed that the possibility of getting paroled depended more on what time of day your case was heard than other facts.
If judges, who are used to long periods of concentration, can be affected by this phenomenon, imagine how challenging an extended shopping trip is?
Another scientist, Roy F. Baumeister, developed the idea of ego depletion, which appears to be at least part of the explanation for what is going on. The process of making decisions involves self-regulating behavior. And our capacity for this is not unlimited -- to the contrary, it deteriorates and needs regular re-charging.
Some of the specific scenarios discussed are well-known overload situations, like choosing items for a wedding registry, or selecting fabric from a choice of thousands for a custom-made suit.
At last, the explanation for the hideous choices suggested for gifts at wedding registries -- the couple in question were exhausted, or they would never have selected that $150 gravy boat.
More difficult for the poor - because they have to make more tradeoffs
One very interesting finding reported on is that shopping is even more tiring for those of limited means, because they have so many more trade-offs to make. The drain of 'willpower' that results from this constant need to make trade-off decisions leaves less energy available for activities that might alleviate poverty, such as studying or starting a micro-business.
Other research confirms that people will spend more money in some shopping situations if faced with expensive decisions after their energy stores are depleted.
Implications for designing a better customer experience
We run an ethical blog here, so we're not going to help you extract more dollars from exhausted decision-makers. Plus, we know that people will often choose NOT to decide, and just walk away, if they are faced with too much choice.
A better way to look at this situation is to understand that people will benefit from taking a break when faced with a lot of decisions and trade-offs. Food also helps to restore our capabilities.
You could build a small break area for your clients where they can have a coffee and cookies before they finish choosing automobile options or mortgage options, for example.
Another strategy to reduce the distress would be to simply reduce the number of choices by presenting customers with a limited set that is most suited to their situation.
For yourself, when you feel fatigue setting in, go for a coffee and a muffin, it will help you regain your ability to make sensible choices. And you won't wind up with a bunch of costly crap that you wonder why you bought.