Decision Fatigue: Enemy Of Brands

Mark Di SommaJanuary 15, 20142 min

Edward Boches pointed me in the direction of this thought-provoking article by John Tierney on “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue happens when ordinary people are asked to make decision after decision after decision. Such processes run down the mental batteries that power our self-control. Eventually it seems, we start looking for shortcuts – either by acting impulsively or by opting to do nothing.

Research on what tires us out the most shows that people would rather compare and contrast options (without making a decision) or verify a decision that has already been made by someone else than make the decision themselves. Once consumers reach a certain level of mental tiredness they stop negotiating. Instead, they make decisions based on the thing that is most important to them. Decision fatigue, it seems, breaks down our reluctance to explore or commit. People soon opt for default settings or suggestions. And the more tough choices there are early in the process, the quicker people opt for the path of least resistance.

All of this has major implications for the ways that brands think about their ranges and their sales processes – specifically, the intensity of choices, timing of those choices, frequency of choices; types of choices (defaults vs calculations) and simplicity of choices.

There are also important compromises to consider. For example, while it might be easy to fatigue someone into making a one-off sale by wearing them out with decisions, what will their experience be in retrospect and will that sale engender loyalty and repeat business and/or word of mouth? Probably not.

For brands ranging from consultancies to retail, there are important way-finding opportunities in these findings: revealing the complexity/scope of what’s available, for example, needs to be tempered by actions that lead people directly to the things they are most enthusiastic to consider and feel in control of.

My clear take-away from this article is that choice can be a complicator not a liberator, that not all decisions matter enough to involve the consumer (but the secret lies in knowing which ones do), and that speed of transit through the sales process needs to be interlaced with feelings of control, excitement and reassurance.

In other words, the sales process for most brands should change gears to become easier the closer one gets to purchase, with the hard decisions timed to be far enough in for people to feel involved, but not so far in that they feel exhausted.

It’s certainly something to consider the next time you’re looking to change your sales process. Are we asking consumers to make the right decisions about our brands at times that are right for them – or are we pushing them to conform with a way of selling that suits our own energy levels?

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Mark Di Somma


  • James H.

    January 15, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Very interesting research, Mark! I think depending on your intent you can use this for good and bad ways.

    The good way to approach this from a marketing perspective is by reassuring your customer that your company is full of consulting professionals that can help walk them through the decision-making process.

    The bad way, like you mentioned, could overwhelm them into inaction, and that’s not helpful to anyone’s marketing efforts.

    Thanks again for sharing this! I found this very useful.

  • Hilton Barbour

    January 16, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Another cracker. The NYT article was bookmarked already but thanks for the synopsis.

    Perhaps part of the Bog Box Retailer malaise (and earnings warnings) comes from an inability to recognize and address this common human state.

    I’ve read elsewhere about gender differences related to decision fatigue. I certainly know visiting IKEA on a Sunday causes a rush of endorphins for my wife…and decision, mental and physical fatigue in me.

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