Draining the Willpower Battery One Choice at a Time

By Ailien Phan

Our willpower is much like our energy level – we start off each day with a high amount and as the day goes on, it gradually drains to a lower amount. This daily decrease of willpower is caused by making decisions – the more choices you make, the lower your amount of willpower. Studies of this occurrence, more officially coined “decision fatigue,” have shown that the more decisions you are forced to make during the day, the less likely you are able to fend off temptation later.

When decision fatigued, people will most likely do one of two things: Give in to impulses or avoid making a decision at all. Considering these consequences in the context of shopping, this likelihood to act more impulsively can be used to the advantage of retailers. Grocery stores strategically place the gum, candy, soda and other random assortment of unnecessary goods in the checkout line. Once customers reach the register, they often have made so many choices during their shopping trip that they are apt to give into the impulse to buy.

However, the second effect of decision fatigue, avoiding a decision altogether, can create a barrier for retailers because customers may simply walk away without making a purchase. For example, after a long day of work, filtering and reading through retail promotion emails can feel like a task. Instead of opening unread messages, I may end up just deleting them all so I don’t even have the chance to decide if the latest sale or deal is worth shopping. By ignoring the promotion, I’ve taken the work out of deciding if the deal is something I want, followed by the right product choice and a few pages of credit card and shipping information. A full day of continually having to make decisions prompts me to travel the path of least resistance, which involves no decision-making and thinking at all.

An important consideration for consumer researchers is to understand how decision fatigued consumers are at various points throughout the day and how that may affect their ability to make purchase decisions. Decision fatigue therefore should be incorporated into marketing strategies to help her choose without overwhelming her with options.

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