The cost of decision-making - self-control and emotion regulation

Decision-making and self-control – the cost


Self-control and decision making

Do you feel tired or even exhausted after making a lot of decisions or having to make important decisions and choices? It takes self-control and emotion regulation but it also comes at a cost.

This could be the reason…

Making decisions and choices requires a level of self-control and emotion regulation. On a daily basis we make hundreds, if not thousands, of small decisions and choices. Many of these are small habit-based and routine choices, like what order to do things in when we get up in the morning, spanning right through to life changing and momentous decisions and choices, such as who to marry, career choices and strategic organisational decisions and choices.

Research is finding that conscious decisions require levels of self-control and emotion regulation capability. But how does decision-making impact our self-control and emotion regulation ability?


Increase in decision-making

Indeed, there is good evidence to show that the number of choices and decisions we make on a daily basis has increased exponentially. One study found that in 1976 the average supermarket carried approximately 9,000 unique products. By 1992 this number had increased to over 30,000 different products and today (2018) it is estimated that the majority of people in the western world have the choice of millions of different products, as supermarkets increasingly go online. Another study found that Starbucks, even though it is primarily a coffee shop, has in excess of 19,000 different drink combinations available. These are just the mundane choices we make on a day-to-day basis.


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Management decisions

In organisations, with the advent of technology and artificial intelligence, it has been estimated that the average manager has seen in excess of a 30-fold increase in decisions and choices they make over the last 20 years.

Automatic decisions

A 2002 study found that, due to the overwhelming nature of choices available to most individuals today, the vast majority of decisions are made without conscious consideration and are largely habits and automatic choices.


The need for self control

At a psychological level, conscious, non-habituated decision-making requires acts of self-control, self-regulation and emotion regulation and that our capacity to keep making conscious decisions and choices degrades with more and more decisions and choices we make in a short space of time.


Maladaptive decision-making 

Self-control, self-regulation and emotion regulation problems are at the heart of maladaptive decision-making processes, such as overeating, overspending, underachievement, prejudices, inappropriate sexual responses, lazy and ineffectual decision-making.


Does decision-making impair self-control?

One question, which remains largely unanswered, is whether making decisions and choices actually impairs our subsequent ability to engage in self-control, self-regulation and emotion regulation.

A new study

A new study by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, Florida State University, Texas A& M University, and San Diego State University conducted a series of laboratory studies looking at whether or not conscious decision-making and choice making degrades further decision-making, as a result of an impairment of self-control, self-regulation and emotion regulation.



The study found that making choices and decisions significantly leads to reduced self-control which includes:


  • reduced emotion regulation
  • less physical stamina
  • reduced levels of persistence
  • reduced level of quality of decision-making and arithmetic calculations
  • increased levels of procrastination


Additionally, the study found that the more choices an individual makes, the faster their capability degrades in each of the above areas. Interestingly, the study also found that just thinking about deliberating about the decision can impair self-control and emotion regulation, but not significantly. It is the act of making a choice that appears to have the impact.


The study concluded that self-control, self-regulation and emotion regulation are limited resources.


Further, study found that the depletion in self-control and self-regulation can start to occur after only four minutes of the decision-making process being initiated. The average time it takes for a significant depletion of self-control and self-regulation to occur is less than 10 minutes.


The fact that making decisions depletes self-control and self-regulation so quickly, and to the extent that it starts to degrade our decision-making capability, shows that this is not a function of mental fatigue in general. Rather, purposeful and conscious decision-making causes rapid self-control and self-regulation depletion, which in turn starts to have an impact on decision-making capability.


Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2014). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page