I’m a slut for studies.
I love random, weird studies that reveal surprising and bizarre correlations. And I’d like to take you through one of my favorites today. It’s called “Heart and Mind in Conflict: the Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making.” It’s about the ways that stress affects our ability to make good choices.
Oh, and more importantly: it stars a fat slab of chocolate cake.
“Wow,” you may be thinking, “wasn’t the last study Kitty wrote about all about marshmallows? Do you guys cover any studies that don’t prominently feature dessert?”
To which I say: “You have bought me not sweet cane with money, nor have you filled me with the fat of your sacrifices; rather you have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities.”
That’s Ye Olde Testament Speak for you shut the hell up and learn about cognitive behavioral science while looking at my collection of chocolate cake gifs!
In 1999, two assistant professors (Baba Shiv at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and Alexander Fedorirkhin at Washington State University in Richland) wanted to test the ways in which emotions influenced consumers when faced with a choice. They collected 165 test subjects, and split them into two groups.
They gave the first group a two-digit number to memorize, like this:
They gave the second group the same task, but the number was seven digits long, like this:
7 9 4 0 9 2 5
When they had memorized their numbers, the researchers told them to walk to another room to write them down. “But before you do so,” the researchers told the test subjects, “there’s a cart with two snacks on it just outside this door. Choose whichever one you want, but please only take one.”
Now, you can probably tell right away what the difference is between these two test groups. Memorizing a two-digit number is significantly easier than memorizing a seven-digit number. The study refers to the former as requiring “low processing resources” and the latter “high processing resources.” Your brain must work much harder to memorize the longer number chain, leaving you with stress and less processing power to dedicate to other tasks.
… Which is probably why test subjects who had the harder memorization task were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake over the fruit cup.
The researchers theorized, and their study seems to confirm, that the heavier one’s cognitive load, the fewer mental resources one can dedicate to rational choice making.
See, a slice of cake is fucking delicious, but it comes at a high nutritional cost. One slice runs about 300 calories, contains a whopping amount of sugar, sodium, and fats, and provides few essential vitamins or minerals. Fresh fruit has only about sixty calories, no fat or sodium, and a respectable amount of vitamins.
The trade-off is that fresh fruit, though tasty, doesn’t generally send people’s eyes rolling back into their heads in a full foodgasm.
Tests subjects may not know this down to this level of nutritional detail, but they’re certainly aware that one is a highly rewarding yet unhealthy/“bad” choice and the other is a less rewarding, healthy/“good” choice.
The cake is immediately satisfying but ultimately damaging. And the experiment proves that rejecting such a choice requires a high amount of your brain’s cognitive processing power.
“The characterization of the consumer in previous decision-making research as a ‘thinking machine,’ driven purely by cognitions, is a poor reflection of reality,” the researchers wrote. “Consumers are more often mindless rather than mindful decision makers.”
If your brain is under stress because it’s handling complex tasks and a temptation presents itself, you’re twice as likely to give in to the temptation. This may be one among several complex reasons why obesity is high among people who are poor.
Eating the chocolate cake
We’re all working with simple simian brains under the hood. Even extremely logical people can make illogical choices when their brains are highly taxed. We simply don’t have an unlimited supply of rational decision-making powers inside of us.
But if you know that that’s how brains work under stress, you can use this fact to your advantage in the following six ways.
1. Try to keep major life events involving tons of decisions from overlapping.
Obviously it’s not always possible, as many of life’s major milestones will come as a surprise. Ain’t nobody waiting until after the holidays to contract Lyme Disease, I get it. But if you’re planning for a wedding and a baby and a home purchase and a job change within a short span of time… consider if any of those things can wait so you can devote more attention to them later.
2. Don’t make financial commitments when you’re under stress, upset, confused, overworked, or distracted.
If you have to buy a car, don’t do it after a long day at work. You might not be able to properly advocate for yourself if you’re too taxed. Remember our rules for buying a car.
3. Push your daily decisions to as early in the day as possible.
This is most likely when your cognitive stress is at its lightest. You are fresh and focused for the day. (It’s theorized that this is why Alzheimer’s symptoms show more in the evening.) Pack a healthy snack or lunch instead of ordering whatever. Go to the gym early instead of waiting until after work, when you’ll be tired and cranky and eager to talk yourself out of it. Prep dinner before you leave the house.
4. If you know you’re prone to giving in to a certain kind of temptation, consider just straight-up sabotaging yourself with a preemptive clear-headed choice.
When I caught myself lazily browsing social media sites instead of working, I installed a plugin that blocked them from my computer after ten minutes of daily use. And sometimes if I’m going somewhere where I know I’ll be tempted to spend money unnecessarily, I’ll just leave my wallet at home. There’s no temptation in the moment because I set myself up for failure. Which is a success!
5. Practice saying, “I don’t have an opinion on that.”
When you’ve reached your cognitive load limit, there’s no reason to strain yourself. In a world so filled with choices, making them can become a burden. I remember reaching a scenic plateau of not-giving-a-fuck on my wedding day. Anyone who approached me got a beatific “I have no preference” in response to all logistical questions. I believe it actually set a nice tone for the event. “You are here, I am here, booze is here. Let us not worry about whether the menu placards are in front of the dish or to the side.”
6. Finally, give yourself low-key rewards that give you a psychological boost when you need it.
An old boss of mine used to keep a crystal bowl of dark chocolate on her desk. Snatching a few throughout the day was nowhere near as bad as other things I could’ve done to relieve stress. I could shop online, get expensive drinks with friends, sit on my ass playing The Sims until 2 a.m., ram-jam a bacon lover’s pizza all by myself, etc. Instead, a reliable stream of tiny indulgences artificially expanded the patience and reduced the stress of everyone at the office.
I for one stand constantly at the ready to devour free food of any kind. Fruit is fine and all, but I have needs. I’m the Bruce Bogtrotter of the personal finance world. I will eat so much chocolate cake that Miss Trunchbull gives everyone in the personal finance community five hours of detention.
What are some of your “chocolate cakes”? When you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, what do you turn to? And have you found any effective ways of preemptively shutting yourself down? Tell us about them in the comments below!