Recently, I came across an interesting New York Times article on decision fatigue. The article describes and supports an idea that all of us have personally experienced at one time or another – making a lot of decisions in a day is just plain tiring. Whether these are decisions like what snack to eat or what options to include in a car purchase, any decisions made use up mental energy, and affect later behavior and choices.
When people make choice after choice and decision fatigue sets in, they often stop carefully considering the decisions they make. How does this affect their actual choices? Frequently they choose the path of least resistance. To that end, if defaults are offered, they tend to just go along with them. But when no defaults are offered, they can sometimes make a reckless decision — like the tempting candy bar in the checkout lane — because they don’t want to expect more energy to mull over the repercussions.
This got me thinking about how this concept can be useful to us in the market research industry. Our respondents are subject to the same sort of decision fatigue when participating in our projects as they in other areas of their lives. How, though, can being aware of this improve our projects, and thus our results? Perhaps we should place more importance on reaching respondents earlier in the day, before they’ve used up their stores of willpower on day-to-day decisions at work, school, or the grocery store — especially for quantitative studies requiring a lot of straight decision-making and choices.
However, even though it’s not as black and white, qualitative research studies such as the conversations I have with respondents every day as a moderator, do incorporate a good deal of decision-making… Sure, I’m “only” asking them about their feelings and reactions, instead of asking them to pick A or B, but doesn’t that draw on their store of mental energy too? Not only am I asking them to take a closer look at their reactions than they may typically, but I’m requiring them to decide how best to describe this largely internal process in a way that I, a stranger, will understand. Then I ask them to clarify their responses, to give me more information about what leads to their reactions and feelings…
How might decision fatigue impact how willing they are to allow me to lead them to the deeper levels that we consider paydirt? And in turn, what can we do to mitigate this? Is it as simple as fielding studies earlier in the day, or are there other techniques we can employ to decrease respondents’ decision fatigue?