How to make better decisions?

I never thought of this method:

What should you do when you really, REALLY have to “go”? Make important life decisions, maybe. Controlling your bladder makes you better at controlling yourself when making decisions about your future, too, according to a study to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Sexual excitement, hunger, thirst–psychological scientists have found that activation of just one of these bodily desires can actually make people want other, seemingly unrelated, rewards more. Take, for example, a man who finds himself searching for a bag of potato chips after looking at sexy photos of women. If this man were able to suppress his sexual desire in this situation, would his hunger also subside? This is the sort of question Mirjam Tuk, of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, sought to answer in the laboratory.

Tuk came up with the idea for the study while attending a long lecture. In an effort to stay alert, she drank several cups of coffee. By the end of the talk, she says, “All the coffee had reached my bladder. And that raised the question: What happens when people experience higher levels of bladder control?” With her colleagues, Debra Trampe of the University of Groningen and Luk Warlop of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Tuk designed experiments to test whether self-control over one bodily desire can generalize to other domains as well.

In one experiment, participants either drank five cups of water (about 750 milliliters), or took small sips of water from five separate cups. Then, after about 40 minutes–the amount of time it takes for water to reach the bladder–the researchers assessed participants’ self-control. Participants were asked to make eight choices; each was between receiving a small, but immediate, reward and a larger, but delayed, reward. For example, they could choose to receive either $16 tomorrow or $30 in 35 days.

The researchers found that the people with full bladders were better at holding out for the larger reward later. Other experiments reinforced this link; for example, in one, just thinking about words related to urination triggered the same effect.

“You seem to make better decisions when you have a full bladder,” Tuk says. So maybe you should drink a bottle of water before making a decision about your stock portfolio, for example. Or perhaps stores that count on impulse buys should keep a bathroom available to customers, since they might be more willing to go for the television with a bigger screen when they have an empty bladder.

The pointer is from Michelle Dawson, although I do not take her to be necessarily endorsing (or rejecting) the results.  There is related work here and here (pdf).

I wrote this post with an empty bladder.


I wrote this post with an empty bladder.

Perhaps you should incorporate a graphic for that.

One of the big areas in marketing research currently is research on self control--either reducing it or enhancing it. Some of the research has to be done abroad because of the ethical clearance processes in the US--eg, decision making while drunk. One of the big markets for self control is the diet market and medical compliance.

I personally take better decision when I'm not hungry. But relating bladder with better decision is too large an extent to see things, I think.

It reminds me of the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

Maybe the test subjects considered the amount of bother waiting around for a $16 check from the bursar as not worth it, while getting to the bathroom NOW was more important. The $30 in the future was just icing on the cake.

"I saw numbers in the paper but couldn't interpret the statistics"

Delay of gratification correlates to mathematical ability, but I'm no math whiz.

This explains why we weren't allowed to go to the bathroom between and had to beg to go during classes in high school. Of course, our solution was to not drink any water, so the chronic dehydration probably canceled out learning gains we got from having full bladders.

This makes a good deal of sense to me. There is a specific part of the brain - the frontal cortex - with the function of making you do the more difficult thing. (It does far more than just willpower, but we'll leave that aside for now.) Neural pathways that are used more are "potentiated" - they become easier and easier to activate.*

Potentiating commonly used pathways in the frontal cortex thus should benefit "doing the more difficult thing" . There's a fairly robust neuroscience literature around these concepts - for instance, if you brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, its easier to control your eating.

* Well, generally. There are a few well known exceptions, such as the pleasure pathway. Over-exercise the pleasure pathway - probably best studied in cocaine users - and it becomes much harder to activate. This is why users need bigger and bigger hits to feel the same results, and why even recovering cocaine addicts have difficult times appreciating subtle pleasures like good music or the smell of flowers.

** The frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully develop, and doesn't exert its full influence until age 25 or so. As my neuro professor used to joke, "this explains fraternities," and as he would point out more seriously, "this also is a major contributor to why the youth crime rate is so much higher than the adult crime rate."

Personally, I make better decisions when I have all the information I need and I have had a good night sleep.

Gabriel, possibly, but it may depend on which parts of the brain are at play.

Let's say I'm using my frontal lobe to overcome my appetites. Then I wear out my frontal lobe as I resist different temptations. Then Mullainathan's model may apply.

But holding in a full bladder isn't a frontal lobe function. In fact, the full bladder may be weakening my other temptations, since I'm uncomfortable.

I suspect physical discomfort may make someone more patient. I'm not sure it would make them better at making complex decisions. I bet the urge to urinate would lower someone's performance on a cognitive test, for example.

So, if there are poor countries with poor sanitation and a custom of going in the bushes whenever, can we raise people's internal discount rates by providing public bathrooms (but not too many!) and increasing social stigma of not using them?

I noticed this about hunger about a decade ago, and use it strategically. Hunger focuses the mind.

The eccentric right-wing British politician Enoch Powell deliberately avoided using the lavatory before appearing on television (including lengthy programmes such as the BBC's Question Time) as he believed that "a full bladder concentrates the mind."

This is a really interesting piece. I never would have connected bodily functions with making decisions. I feel like I am terrible at making decisions when I am focused on finding a bathroom or food. If I participated in the study, I would probably pick the $16 now instead of waiting a few weeks for the $30, but that's just my thoughts. I think this study would be better if there was more information displayed about how the two cases are connected. What is happening in the brain or what signals are being sent when these situation occurs?

Very cool link; thanks!

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