Secrets from psychology: the best time to make tough decisions

Sarah Finney 12 August 2014

Most of our everyday decisions are easy to make. Whether to take the bus or walk, what to cook for dinner, which film to watch… But then there are those big decisions that have a much wider impact on our lives. Decisions like: how should I plan for retirement? When should I buy my first home? How do I manage my money so that I can do the things I want?

Decision-making is a hot topic for psychology research at the moment. If you’re mulling over a huge decision, here are a few times of day when science suggests it might be that bit easier…

On a full bladder

In a recent study, participants at the University of Twente in the Netherlands drank either five cups of water or took small sips. After about 40 minutes – the time it takes water to reach the bladder – researchers tested their self control through a series of eight choices. For each choice, they were offered either an instant reward, or a larger but deferred award: for example, picking up £10 tomorrow, or £30 in 30 days.

Those with fuller bladders were more likely to opt for the bigger reward later. The researchers hypothesise that, because all inhibitions originate from the same area of the brain, self control in one area can affect another.

So, while you may not want to down several cups of coffee before deciding whether to buy a house, people who exercise higher levels of bladder control are, according to the study, better able to control other impulses in order to make more pragmatic decisions.

11.59am (or at least before 10pm)

Another recent piece of research reported in the New York Times found that decisions are best made in the late morning, when the morning rush has subsided but the hunger pangs of lunch are yet to kick in. Serotonin levels are high, dopamine levels are at their lowest in the day, and you’re unlikely to have “decision fatigue” from making too many other choices.

The study also found that just 1% of participants felt able to make solid life-changing decisions after 10pm. The rest reported feeling frazzled from the day and sleepy in the wind-down before bed.

So, schedule in your big decisions towards the end of the morning (or at least before 10pm) when this research suggests you’ll be at your peak.

When you’re learning a foreign language

This can be surprisingly effective for those who are learning a foreign language as an adult (and who aren’t fluently bilingual), as the emotional effects of a different language don’t resonate in the same way. This is down to something called “framing effects”, where the semantics of a situation affect whether a decision is made on probability or certainty. So, where a decision is “framed” as involving a gain, humans prefer a sure outcome over a probabilistic outcome. But, if the decision is explained in different terms, humans may prefer to go for a decision based on probability.

Research in the US at the University of Chicago, France and South Korea has found that, when participants were asked to read and respond to decision-making scenarios in either their native or a foreign tongue, the standard “framing effects” had affected those who used their native language, but those who had used a foreign language to understand the scenario were less affected by its emotional aspects.

So, dig out your school French textbooks and get decision-making en Français (or in any other language that’s not your native tongue!).

When you’re not hungry

While having a full bladder can apparently help your self control, being hungry can have the opposite effect. Hunger or thirst can actually spill over into our decision-making, making us desire bigger payouts for the choices we make. This can lead to making riskier choices in the hope of bigger rewards.

In one study, participants who had fasted made riskier financial decisions in a lottery task. Another recent study involving animals at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in the Netherlands also found that animals were more risk-averse when full, and took more risks when hungry – something that researchers suggested was linked to an evolutionary impulse to seek food in times of hunger, taking bigger risks in the hope of a new or better food source.

So, eat up before making a decision – ensure that there are no big physical demands that can steal your attention (or inadvertently make you take more risks).

When you’re standing straight

You’ve probably heard of the left-brain / right-brain division before, but did you know that we store numbers in different places based on their size? We store bigger numbers on the right and smaller numbers on the left. And when it comes to estimating numbers, actually leaning to one side could affect our decisions.

A study at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands to test this theory asked participants to stand on a Wii board while answering questions. Although the screen told participants their posture was straight, some of them were made to lean slightly to one side by the board they were standing on. Researchers found no difference when participants leaned to the right or stood up straight, but when they leaned left they were more likely to underestimate numbers.

So, while the researchers say that leaning shouldn’t be a technique used to make better decisions, it does provide some useful information about the unknown role of the body in how we make decisions. Try checking that you’re standing straight when on the cusp of making a big choice. If nothing else, your brain is more oxygenated by upright posture.

While all these tips could help you to make better decisions, the most important thing is having the right information when and where you need it. MoneyHub can arm you with the information you need about your money, to make informed decisions. Try it now.