To bake or not to bake? That is the question

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With the holidays around the corner, do you struggle to stay motivated to study throughout the day?

I sure do!

It’s that time of year again; holiday parties, shopping and lots of cooking and baking!

Although I should probably be working, I still find myself looking up cookie recipes and deciding which ones I will bake first instead of knocking items off my to-do list.

Why does opting for labour instead of leisure become so hard as the holidays get closer and closer?

The basics

We make decisions every day. Yet, some – like the decision to bake or get work done – are harder than others. But, what’s involved in “making a decision” anyway?

Simply put, decision-making involves comparing and contrasting each of our options, with the goal of picking the option with the greatest benefits and the fewest costs [1]. Sometimes there is a clear winner, like choosing between multiplying 541 by 3 or listening to your favorite holiday music. Whereas solving the multiplication problem is likely hard and not very interesting (i.e., few benefits, high costs), listening to your favorite jingle is both entertaining and relaxing (i.e., many benefits, few costs).

In contrast, other cost-benefit analyses don’t have a clear winner, and these are the decisions we struggle with. Should I take a break to bake cookies or stay hard at work?

On the one hand, studying means you’re more likely to pass your exam (benefit) but it also means passing up the opportunity to be eating freshly-baked goodies (cost). On the other hand, if you opt to bake – let’s be honest – a ridiculous amount of cookies, you may really enjoy yourself (benefit) but you also risk failing your exam (cost).

Although you could decide either way, it seems wiser to keep studying and bake later when it doesn’t involve such a downside. So, with some struggle and perhaps a disappointed look on your face, you decide to keep working.

But that’s only half the story. There is something else that makes the decision between labour and leisure a hard one: we don’t like to think hard!

Avoiding mental effort

Studying for long hours is hard!

You have to focus to fully understand all there is to know about psychology, or to commit an exhaustive list of complicated definitions to memory. Beyond that, you have to keep focusing, ideally with minimal interruptions, in order to be successful in your studying; which is even harder!

Similar to physical effort, cognitive effort (i.e., thinking hard) is intrinsically costly in terms of our mental resources, and thus we tend to avoid it when we can [2].

Factoring this mental effort in to the decision-making process, choosing to bake a dozen festive cupcakes starts to look more appealing. Unfortunately, for most of us, this simply makes the decision between memorizing the definition for the cocktail effect and preheating the oven that much harder.

So, which choice wins? Your desire to avoid cognitive effort or your desire to pass your exam?In my case, this is where I start to truly argue – or bargain – with myself.

Recharging our battery

There is one last piece to the decision-making puzzle, and it’s a big one: we can’t engage in mental effort forever.

After several hours studying for an exam, focusing becomes nearly impossible, regardless of how hard you try or how much coffee you ingest. Suddenly, the psychology concepts that you were starting to understand no longer make sense and you don’t have it in you to memorize another definition.

In other words, you can’t endlessly put forth cognitive effort without eventually needing a break. This means that, sooner or later, you will not only deserve your break, but will actually need it! [3]

Gingerbread cookies, here I come!

Although breaks appear necessary, researchers don’t completely understand why we need them.

One possibility is that we run out of mental resources. Your brain’s cognitive effort battery level may simply decrease over time, eventually getting close to empty. With very little cognitive resources remaining, we fail to continue to think hard, feeling the need to take a break to do something less cognitively demanding.

Another possibility is that the time we have spent studying makes us reconsider taking a break, which now does not seem as negative as it once did. After hours studying for your psychology exam, you have likely committed at least some concepts to memory, and therefore don’t fear failing as much as you originally did, making baking 24 cupcakes much more appealing, especially if you can’t focus anymore anyway.

Deciding what to decide can sometimes be irritating or feel downright impossible. Although curious cognitive scientists still don’t fully understand how we make hard decisions, we seem to do so just fine.

So, trust yourself; your cognition has got your back when it comes to deciding what to decide.

Republished from Concordia University’s Public Scholar Blog:

Images: 1) Featured image from Pexels 2) All other images from unsplash

[1] Kool, W., & Botvinick, M. (2014). A labor/leisure tradeoff in cognitive control. Motivation Science, 1(S), 3–18.

[2] Botvinick, M. M. (2007). Conflict monitoring and decision making: Reconciling two perspectives on anterior cingulate function. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(4), 356–366.

[3] Kurzban, R., Duckworth, A., Kable, J. W., & Myers, J. (2013). An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance. Behavioral and Brain Sciences36(6), 661–679.