22 August 2011

Decisions, decisions

In Moscow on the Hudson, there’s a scene where Vladimir Ivanoff (played by Robin Williams), a new Soviet* immigrant to the U.S., goes into a grocery store to buy coffee. Faced with more kinds of coffee than he has ever seen in Moscow, he struggles to make a decision. In the end, it’s all too much, and passes out on the store floor.

Option paralysis.

I’d heard that term before. I’d also heard some research that showed that willpower was a finite resource, but new to me was a concept that tied the two together: decision fatigue.

This article in The New York Times Magazine is a superb explanation and examination of research in psychology that shows every decision you make makes the next one harder. Decisions take effort, and at some point, we get sick of it, and just stop deciding. That’s the point the “Screw it” factor comes in that lies behind so many bad choices.

Since reading that article, I can’t stop thinking about what that means for teaching.Classes start up again in one week.

Over the last few years, I’ve been using clickers in class. I’ve done this in part because research shows that retrieving information enhances memory, and that many people claim that people can only pay attention for a few minutes (though I remain skeptical of this). I talk for a while, then ask a clicker question.

But how much I contributing to my students’ decision fatigue?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if students are suffering from chronic decision fatigue. In particular, the current crop of American students have probably been tested and assessed so often that I’d wager that some of them are running decision deficits.

For instance, university students show survey fatigue. Even taking a survey requires making a bunch of decisions. Was I “extremely satisfied” with the service, or merely “satisfied”? Was the instructor “excellent” or simply “good”?

On the one hand, boredom. On the other hand, decision fatigue. Both are bad for learning. Which is least bad? Or is there some optimal balance? I can’t decide. Screw it. Time for a snack.

Additional: That willpower is limited does not mean that it cannot be strengthened, however. A blog post at Time examines research on this topic that suggests that while the effects of decision fatigue are real, how much people are affected by it varies tremendously.

Photo by mattwi1s0n on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

* Yes, Soviet. It was the 1980s.

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