Thursday, September 27, 2012

Being Depleted

Imagine you are in a US gaol and seeking parole. What would be your plea to your lawyer? What would you want him or her to present to the parole board that would get you out of your prison garb and into some comfy jeans and clean shirt?

Well, the answer to this is not a matter of what but a matter of when. A really neat study showed that you are more likely to get your parole request approved if the hearing is held first thing in the morning or immediately after lunch. Outside of those times you may be out of luck.

This and some other intriguing research suggests that we feel more positively inclined towards the world when we are less stressed, less tired or as Dan Ariely puts it, less depleted. Later in the morning and in the afternoon the research suggests that the learned judges are tired and probably low on sugar: depleted. Depletion also seems to be associated with worse decision-making and generally diminished cognitive performance, general grumpiness and a less than positive affect.

Recent neurophysiological research has confirmed the long held belief by philosophers and other students of human behaviour that emotions play an enormous role in decision-making and other cognitive activities. We are not as rational as we thought, in fact that we are barely rational at all, but are more the victims of our emotional needs, and predilections than we like to think: gut feelings trump facts. This is all due to a small part of the brain called the amygdala that is the seat of our emotions. It is not only close to the part of our cortex responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as judgement and decision-making, but it has a lot of connecting nerve cells with this area too. At a quite unconscious level it influences the information to which we pay attention, how we appraise the information, and what we decide to do in response.

When we are depleted we are even more influenced by raw emotion, as our overloaded or tired nervous system becomes even less able to attend to the facts, the details, the rational. Our biases and preferences and previous emotional experiences, are more likely to hold sway against the facts as our amygdala runs unchecked. The opinion of the person we dislike and those that we admire or respect will hold even less or even more weight depending on to whom we are listening. Politicians know this only too well, that how what one says is received is hugely influenced by how people feel about us, or our party: the truth is largely irrelevant.

Most of us probably at least intuitively knew about how depletion, fatigue and stress affect what we decide and how we act. But I’m not convinced that many of use actually take it into account and self-regulate. Self-regulation is the capacity to be aware of our current state and to take it into account before acting. It has been a key feature of a number of psychological treatments in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for many years. Self-regulation is also found in the organisational psychology literature about the reflective practitioner (see Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, for example).

The key to self-regulating is having a more acute awareness of self-a tricky thing at the best of times but we can get better at it even though understanding ourselves is so difficult. When we know we are depleted then perhaps we postpone important decisions, don’t have that challenging conversation at that time, become more participative and ask for other opinions, and do mundane rather than important tasks. In other words, save the important things for early in the morning or early in the afternoon so that we don’t send someone to the firing squad by mistake just because our blood glucose is low!