Decision Fatigue and Debate

John Tierney, a science columnist at the New York Times, wrote an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about the concept of “decision fatigue”. In it, he explains that the mental work required to make decisions is substantially more taxing on our brains than we typically think and that the associated “decision fatigue” leads us to make bad decisions.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

The concept of decision fatigue has several applications to competitive academic debate.

1. Judge Fatigue

Debaters often struggle to empathize with judges’ complaints about fatigue, especially late in tournaments. After all, they think, judging is a passive activity: the judge just sits there, flows, and votes for the team that wins. But judging takes a lot of mental energy. In any one round, judges need to make dozens of decisions about the arguments and evidence presented in the debate. Over the course of a tournament, those decisions take their toll on the judge.

How can this insight help debaters? Late in tournaments—or even late in a single tournament day—it is important to simplify and make the debate as easy as possible for the judge. This is good advice in all debates, but it is especially important when the judge’s mental energy has been depleted by decision fatigue. Tierney describes a study of shopping behavior that can be adapted to debate judging:

For a real-world test of their theory, the lab’s researchers went into that great modern arena of decision making: the suburban mall. They interviewed shoppers about their experiences in the stores that day and then asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems. The researchers politely asked them to do as many as possible but said they could quit at any time. Sure enough, the shoppers who had already made the most decisions in the stores gave up the quickest on the math problems. When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too.

For judges, giving up quicker on the math problems means giving up quicker on analyzing the most difficult portions of the debate. The more complicated an argument, the more likely the judge is to “give up” and settle the dispute without comprehensively evaluating it. Smart debaters give judges clear instructions for resolving complex debates in their favor. When faced with decision fatigue, judges will be more likely to accept these instructions—especially if it means that a complex decision is simplified.

Judges, of course, are supposed to make tough decisions. That’s their job, after all. But despite their best efforts, judges are subject to the same biological limitations as everyone else. Debaters that recognize these limitations and adapt to them will win more close debates.

2. Debater Fatigue

Like judges, debaters spend tournament weekends making decision after decision in a high-pressure environment. Physical exhaustion is certainly one outcome of marathon tournament competition, but decision fatigue also plays a role. The result? Irritability, exhaustion, and poor decisions. As Tierney explains:

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.

In debate, decision fatigue can manifest itself in poor rebuttal choices, careless mistakes, and strategic tunnel vision. Late elimination rounds often feature comparatively weak performances by top-level teams. While phsyical exhaustion is partly responsible, decision fatigue is also a likely culprit.

What can debaters do to combat these effects?

First, practice good nutrition and stay hydrated. Tierney describes a study of the effects of nutrition that showed remarkable results:

The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly. Remember that Jewish Israeli prisoner who appeared at 3:10 p.m. and was denied parole from his sentence for assault? He had the misfortune of being the sixth case heard after lunch. But another Jewish Israeli prisoner serving the same sentence for the same crime was lucky enough to appear at 1:27 p.m., the first case after lunch, and he was rewarded with parole. It must have seemed to him like a fine example of the justice system at work, but it probably had more to do with the judge’s glucose levels.

Eating well while at tournaments can be difficult if preparations are not made in advance to secure healthy snacks and plan healthy meals. Debaters that want to perform their best when it counts most need to take care of themselves throughout a tournament. Binging on donuts and pizza a couple times a day is not a recipe for peak mental acuity.

Second, develop consistent tournament routines. Debaters should strive to make as few decisions as possible during a tournament that are not immediately relevant to winning and losing a round. Things like setting out your clothes the night before may seem trivial, but it turns out that even these trivial decisions require an exertion of scarce mental energy.

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

Outsource as many decisions as possible and make plans in advance. Decide before the tournament what you’re going to wear on each day, where you want to go out to eat, and what time you will set your alarm clock each morning. Let coaches decide where to take the squad for meals; if you have preferences, communicate them before the tournament. The less decisions you have to make, the better off you will be when facing the important ones.

Third, make strategic decisions before the tournament. Some of the most stressful decisions that debaters face involve those about strategies and argument choices. Instead of stressing out about what to put in the 1NC after pairings are released, make those decisions in advance so that you can focus your energy on refining an existing strategy instead of inventing one. Small decisions—like “should we read a topicality argument against this aff? Which one?”—quickly accumulate and drain mental energy.

Fourth, don’t make important decisions late at night. While this is sometimes impossible given the nature of debate tournament schedules, important decisions should be postponed until morning whenever possible. Given the choice of staying up late to prepare for a debate or getting to sleep and waking up early to prepare, the smart move is always to wake up early. As Tierney explains:

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

After a long day of debates, even the most rested and well-nourished debater will have trouble making good decisions. Instead of deciding what to read in the morning elimination round before heading to bed, sleep on it and come back to it in the morning.

Debate is one of the most challenging competitive activities in high school and college. Debate tournaments are mentally exhausting. To make the best decisions in this high-pressure environment, smart debaters should take steps to reduce the impact of decision fatigue—and to adapt to the decision fatigue of their judges.

3 thoughts on “Decision Fatigue and Debate

  1. brian_rubaie

    This is awesome! It's also an especially timely post with most college tournaments returning to 8 rounds as the norm. Very well written.

  2. liljeezus

    Nice! This perfectly describes the exaustion felt on sunday nights after a long tournament.
    Thanks Bill B!

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