Making Decisions Under Stress: The Siren Song of Chocolate Cake

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!

The experiment

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:

1 3

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.”

So like, do you want this...
Chocolate cake is the antidote to stress, right?

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 results

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.

ERMAHGERD. I feel the stress just melting away!

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.

Cake not stress: We needed one more.

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!

15 thoughts to “Making Decisions Under Stress: The Siren Song of Chocolate Cake”

  1. Welp, this post is pure evil. Pure, delicious evil.

    Did the study control for people who just were gonna choose the chocolate cake anyway? Fuck fruit, if there’s free chocolate cake, I’m choosing that regardless!

    On a similar note, I’ve noticed I start buying things like cake mix or tubs of chocolate frosting to consume straight from the jar on days I go to the grocery store when I’m cramping/have cravings or have a blood sugar level somewhere down around my ankles. I’ve tried to be more aware of that but at some level it’s gonna be unavoidable occasionally. At which point I just say to myself “doing this is disgusting and super unhealthy, but I’m going to give in this once and ENJOY THE FUCK OUT OF IT.” Chocolate frosting is so much better than buying or doing other things, all things considered.

    1. Yes! They took surveys afterwards to measure people’s neutral preferences and how they felt while choosing. Those who chose the cake under stress identified more highly with emotionally-charged language. The survey also asked them to recall how both snacks had looked. Impressions of the cake were far more vivid.

      I 100% agree on having a cake-frosting-tub handy to address hanger/cramps/the itis. For me it’s a bag of dark chocolate chips, or a giant spoonful of Nutella, because SHRUG I gotta live!

    2. Everything about this post was magical, and then this is the first comment! Best part of my day, possibly week. And now I have a wicked chocolate craving, thanks for that. O.o This is also a FAR more entertaining summary of decision fatigue than I did ( OMG Raw Brownie Mix = foodgasm.

      My go-to is popcorn and wine. I can eat the shit out of a big tub of fresh popcorn, to the point where my gums are sore for days afterwards. It is just so soul-satisfying, and I justify it as a “healthy” snack. The wine… I’ve tried to slow down on, now I’m allowed 2 glasses max on work nights, and only 3 nights a week, or else I’m not allowed to have any the following week! (Hubs helps with enforcement)

  2. I love the psychology of personal finance!

    I try to limit decision fatigue by streamlining other areas of my life so that I can devote my decision-making capacity to the important things. Capsule wardrobes, unsubscribing from irrelevant email lists, meal planning.

    1. GREAT points! My life has felt significantly easier since I began hitting unsubscribe to everything with the aquarium-splitting speed of a mantis shrimp strike…

  3. Every time I eat chocolate cake (about once every 5 years), I can’t believe I’m the only person who hates chocolate cake. People fighting past each other to participate in the choc cake foodgasm orgy, and I’m wishing it we’re funfetti for goodness sake!
    So yeah, funfetti is my choc cake, or delivery pizza when I’m too bored or “tired” to make a better decision, or as a “reward” for a goal achieved

    1. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I too, hate chocolate cake. Actually, I hate all forms of chocolate. It just doesn’t taste good to me. I’d be like “A fruit cup?! WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO?”

      But really, we all know cheese is my chocolate cake in this scenario.

  4. My weakness is McDonald’s and, unsurprisingly given the findings of this study, my weakest time is very late at night. I’ve already had dinner. Why do I need TWO additional burgers? Just because they are two for five bucks, and the Mickie D’s is close enough to bike or walk to, in the event that I’ve had a few beers.

    I think having some better, quick, alternatives in the fridge would be a good approach here. But man, very little is a satisfying alternative to a Big Mac when I want a Big Mac.

    For your productivity App, do you use Stayfocusd? I love it for my computer, but need something similar for my phone because I’ll often just change devices…

    1. Yes to Stayfocusd! Here is the trick I use for mobile: don’t have the apps installed, only use the sites through the browser, and don’t click the “stay logged in” tick box. When I have to re-enter my username and password, it keeps me from checking compulsively. It works really well for me!

      Also, oh yes, the two-cheeseburger combo meal is for days when I am ANGRY AT MYSELF AND THE WORLD. They’re unsatisfying, not filling, rubbery, synthetic-tasting, and overly salty. But those aren’t strictly negatives. There are days when I. NEED. THEM. We also go to Five Guys on about a quarterly basis. It’s usually after we’ve helped a friend move, or done massive amounts of yard work. I have never said “no thank you” more forcefully than to the Five Guys employee who asked if I wanted a Little. If I’m there, I’m there to get trashed.

  5. Super cool study! I really like studies on behavioral biases and irrational decision-making. Have you read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely? There’s some good ones in there too.

    Oh, and I love chocolate cake – can’t believe you don’t!

  6. Also, I totally just read this after buying a bag of sour cream and cheddar chips, directly after teaching a 90 minute makeup session and before finishing the reading on the train for the class I’m teaching tomorrow. So….. Yeah.

  7. “Ain’t nobody waiting until after the holidays to contract their Lyme Disease, I get it.”

    Holy shit, that made me laugh.

    I love reading about the psychology and cognitive processes in situations where you wouldn’t have thought to consider it before. I can totally get behind this as the reason why I wake up feeling ready to slay the day. My ‘chocolate cake’ would be alcohol, unfortunately. Not even ‘good’ alcohol. Bud light lime and $5 wines. I keep it in check (I’d like to think) by only drinking on the weekends!

  8. Bit of a delayed response, but this post came back up on Tumblr today, so…

    I used to play MMOs whenever stressed, because the reward system for them is addictive: it’s linear, there is nothing you cannot do, and essentially, nothing really hurts…

    … Except for your work, when you’ve stayed up past 4am playing again, which starts the cycle of stress all over again.

    My solution to this was to fall back on something my mother had my high-energy 8-year-old butt do whenever she needed a break: baking sweets. Mum would get paperwork or grading or whatever done at the kitchen table while I flung flour and sugar around and ate chocolate chips but in the end 1. Followed a series of set steps, and 2. Produced something concrete that I could share.

    This applies to Adult Me, too: if I am stressed, I can perform a bit of a mental reset by following a recipe, and what I bake is to be shared with coworkers for praise and spreading happiness… Which means I build positive associations with work beyond the work-well-done feeling, build relationships with coworkers (I have been handed so many recipes, had so many discussions with coworkers over baking), and generally do something far more productive with my time than staring at a screen until 4AM.

    Kinda turns the cake study on its head, in a way, but don’t underestimate the power of following steps for a mental reset. ‘Moving meditation’, as a housemate says.

    And since the author is alluding to _Matilda_…

    Here’s a cake I made a while ago:

  9. Loved this post, but had to comment because, “I’m the Bruce Bogtrotter of the personal finance world” is a sentence I never knew I needed in my life. So thank you for that (and everything else you do, too)!

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