“Who do you think you are?”

Human beings go in for the fundamental attribution error.  Given the task of explaining someone’s actions, we tend to pin it on character, not circumstances.  Sometimes with deadly effects.

Of course, once we decide character is the issue, then shame and contempt are so tempting.  Who does she think she is?  But the truth is that, far from making a deliberate choice, maybe even she doesn’t understand either why things turned out as they did.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience have discovered a lot of factors in the circumstances that can degrade a person’s ability to perform well or make good decisions.  One of the more  recent ones I’ve attributed to myself and then felt foolish doing so.  Having had recently the daunting task of furnishing some space without destroying my work time, I’d head off for a store with a list of needed pieces, and look at what they had on sale.  Then I’d find myself part way down the list and calling a halt.  “I’ve made enough decisions today, the rest won’t be very reliable.” 

O sure.  I thought I was just joking.  Making decisions uses up your ability to make good decisions?!?  Isn’t the mind immaterial and so…

O wait, I don’t think the mind is immaterial and so maybe it is really possible to use up whatever physical reserves one needs to make good decisions.  And recent research says that is exactly right.  Executive functioning, which is involved in decision making, self control and lots of other things, does draw on a limited reserve.  Spend too much time debating about whether to buy beets or carrots and you may be less capable of deciding well about the curtain rods at your next stop  – or where to send the just finished paper.