Of course, you probably already know this; at some stage in your life you’ve heard yourself say ‘Sure, it was a bad decision, but I had a lot to deal with at the time’… but you might not realise just how easily your brain gets overloaded.
Researchers at Stanford Business School asked students to memorise a secret number, walk down a short hallway to another room and recite that number to another researcher. Between rooms they were offered the choice of a quick snack; a fresh fruit salad or a wicked-looking chocolate cake.
Most people did just fine: everyone remembered their secret number and most chose cake over fruit. But here’s the surprise: what they chose was heavily influenced by the number they got.
See, half the group were given a two-digit number while their colleagues had to remember seven digits. The first group were evenly split on their choice; about half went for fruit, half for cake… but the seven-digit people chose cake almost every time.
It turns out that weighing up the pros and cons of salad vs. cake – taxing at the best of times – is a lot harder if you’re trying to remember a number like 3856237, as opposed to say, 42.
Amazingly, all it takes is seven numbers to overload our brains to the point where we find it hard to think about conflicting factors such as nutrition vs. flavour, short term pleasure vs. long term health impacts. And when we have a lot on our minds our higher cognitive functions struggle with any additional decision making, which is when our more primitive systems assume command.
In other words, when the brain gets busy, the stomach does the thinking.
And that’s usually the quickest way to the wrong decision.