HRM unpacks some research around the impact of hunger and fatigue on decision-making.
HR professionals need to make important decisions, day in and day out.
Some of these decisions will be inconsequential. Should I have another biscuit? What colour should I make this bar chart? But others may have an impact on employees and the wider organisation, so HR doesn’t usually have the liberty to make decisions on impulse or a gut feeling.
That’s not to say decisions aren’t made on a whim from time to time – sometimes our brains just aren’t in the right state to give an important decision the time it deserves.
So, is there an ideal time to make decisions? And how can we get our brains to that sweet spot to make well-informed decisions? HRM looks into some interesting research.
Too tired to think
When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania set out to examine the veracity of diverse hiring practice claims, they made an interesting discovery. Biases against female and minority candidates increased when the recruiters were fatigued.
In this instance, the recruiters were too physically fatigued to think straight. However, fatigue doesn’t just arise from a lack of sleep. Issues such as change and video call fatigue – which rose to prominence last year as employees struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing ways of working and the influx of online meetings – also mentally drain us.
When it comes to decision-making, there can be another syndrome at play – the aptly named decision fatigue.
The term decision fatigue is thought to have been coined by social psychologist Dr Roy F Baumeister and is closely linked to the Freudian idea of ego-depletion, also called cognitive depletion.
The theory behind these ideas is that humans have a limited capacity for decision-making, i.e. the more decisions we make, the more tired we become and, as a result, we have less self-control.
In 2013, researchers from America and Israel studied the link between cognitive depletion and racial biases. Participants were split into two groups and asked to play a video game where they acted as a police officer. They were presented with a target which was either armed or unarmed, and either white or Black. When the target was armed, participants were expected to press ‘shoot’, and to press ‘don’t shoot’ when they weren’t.
One group was the control, and the other played the game after being subjected to a task designed to lead to cognitive depletion. Both groups showed racial biases, choosing to shoot the unarmed Black target more often than the unarmed white target, but the racially-motivated decisions were significantly more pronounced among the cognitively depleted group.
This is an extreme example, but it does demonstrate how much more pronounced our biases become when we’re struggling to think clearly.
Our biases are borne out of a number of things, but they are closely related to stereotypes – our brains’ lazy way of categorising people, places and situations. When faced with decision fatigue, a tired brain will take the path of least resistance which can mean leaning into our biases.
How to combat it
One way to reduce decision fatigue is to make your important decisions early in the day. Organisational psychologist Dr Amantha Imber suggests doing all your important decision-making before 11 am.
This is not always going to be possible. Emergencies happen, things pop up, deadlines need to be met, so another approach could be to consider trying to minimise other decisions.
In an article published by Buffer, Imber says, “Where decisions must be made at later times, taking a break without making any choices at all is recommended because ‘decision fatigue’ is difficult to fix without giving the brain a proper rest.
“If you know you are going to be making an important decision at say 4 pm, schedule some rest period immediately before that time.”
Sticking to a routine is one way to give your brain this kind of rest. If having the same thing for lunch every day means you’re making one less decision, it could actually be helping you make better decisions in the afternoon.
The moral of the story: what you do before making a decision could influence your thinking. If you know you’ve got an important meeting with an employee, say, a performance management meeting or a job interview, maybe don’t stay up binging Netflix the night before.
Don’t let your stomach decide
While our brains might drive the machine, our other organs play a role in the decisions we make. We routinely link the way our bodies feel to our decisions – that’s why we refer to it as ‘going with your gut’.
The human body is very good at alerting you to a particular need. You become hungry when you need nourishment or thirsty when you’re dehydrated. While these alerts are useful for taking care of ourselves, they can also lead to impulsive behaviours. This is why they say you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Unless you want a trolley full of sweet treats.
In a study titled Metabolic State Alters Economic Decision Making, researchers looked at financial decisions made by participants who were hungry. They found that the likelihood of a participant making a financially risky decision was significantly higher after they had fasted.
Another study from the University of Dundee found that participants made more impulsive decisions in the hope of quick reward when hungry, even if it meant forgoing a larger reward at a later date (e.g. do you want me to give you $5 right now or $50 in two weeks’ time?).
Interestingly, when we have a heightened sense of control over our body, some research suggests we actually demonstrate more self-control in our decision-making. To demonstrate this, researchers in the Netherlands asked study participants to make decisions when they had a full bladder.
Participants were asked to drink water and then to choose between receiving a small reward now or a larger reward later. Those who needed to go to the toilet were more likely to choose the greater, delayed reward.
It’s clear our bodies’ needs have a huge impact on decision-making, so it’s important we take the time to be aware of them before we go and follow our gut.
How to combat it
The obvious response to this issue would be to eat before you need to make an important decision.
So, if you need it, have a break, have a KitKat, then get into the important stuff.
To ensure you’re not feeding your biases, you first need to identify them. Register for AHIR’s short course to understand what role biases play in your workplace.