John's World: It's Not A Rut-It's A Groove

January 25, 2013 08:32 PM
John's World: It's Not A Rut-It's A Groove

Painstaking research by behavioral economists and social psychologists have reinforced the instinctive findings of keen observers of human behavior, such as second-grade teachers and waitresses: When we are faced with a myriad of choices, we go with what we chose last time.

This pattern of human decision making has been unkindly labeled a rut, and people who practice it are scorned as dull and unimaginative. But research clearly suggests that conclusion is way off base. Consider this finding: People who restrict their range of choice for routine decisions are actually smarter, more efficient, and more attractive to the opposite sex. Neener-neener-neener!

By simply doing
the same things
the same way
every day, I can
hoard willpower
and reason

(Obviously, some of those scientists have a few issues.)

All seriousness aside, these studies show what many of us have suspected for some time: We have only so much willpower and mental capacity for good judgment. More importantly, the quantity we do have is about 10% of what we imagine it to be, which kinda makes my point right there.

Here’s how it works. Brains that are given hard work to do, such as remembering a seven-digit number or resetting the service interval in a tractor display, deplete the sugar level in the area of the mind used for rational thinking. Consequently, when other tasks are confronted, the brain will not work its best, regardless of how low the bar is set.

In one experiment, volunteers tried to recall numbers for several minutes while being distracted by other stimuli, such as cartoons or cute fellow volunteers (they were college students, of course). As they left the lab, they were offered a choice of a healthy snack of fruit and vegetables or Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Those who had to remember longer numbers chose more doughnuts than those who memorized small numbers.

At first glance, this seems reasonable. The exhausted brains needed glucose fast, so pass the doughnuts. Plus—and I cannot emphasize this enough—the doughnuts were still warm! But somehow the scientists decided it showed that the hardworking minds had used up their willpower inventory in order to recall what was essentially a phone number—which, coincidentally, sheds some light on modern dating problems.

Similar results in other experiments have led to a theory called "ego depletion." When Jan first heard this term, she asked hopefully if it was an Internet course I could sign up for. Her disappointment notwithstanding, the tweet-length explanation is this: You’ve only got five or six good decisions in you each day.

Older people intuitively grasp this mental limitation. As I gracefully pack on the years, I find I’ve become proficient in hoarding my powers of reason by moving within "limitedchoice furrows." These are the guidance mechanisms that keep us buying the same color farm equipment, for example. All the time not spent comparison shopping is freed up for intellectual activity, such as taking a nap.

By simply doing the same things the same way every day, I can hoard sufficient willpower and reason to master a 28-page Applebee’s menu at suppertime. Meanwhile, all around me, men who squandered their cerebral capacity by choosing a tie to go with their shirt waste 30 minutes leafing ineffectively though the appetizers alone.

If it ain’t broke. Farmers this winter will be bombarded with advice on upcoming planting decisions. Applying the science lesson thus far, those who simply stay on autopilot with their rotation will bank enormous reserves of decision-making power. At the very least, they won’t be puzzling over why they traded for a pink pickup truck one afternoon.

Ego depletion also has implications for group activities. Having your meeting as early as possible could mean the difference between a brisk debate and snappy solutions, on one hand, and deciding after five hours to embark on a three-day "vision quest board retreat" on the other. On an individual level, willpower-stingy participants are less likely to wake up the next day to find they are the new membership chairman.

So, to all those who think eating the same thing for breakfast, staying married to the same person for eons and always sitting in the same church pew are signs of mental sloth, be advised. When scientists test us with fruit and doughnuts, we’ll be ready. We’ll still take the doughnuts, of course, but unlike the rest, we’ll know why.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report." Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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