I revisited this article about Baba Shiv’s research on how easily our brain tires of rational processing.

In one experiment led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Not much of a difference you might think. But

The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

So the next time you allow people to bore each other to death with powerpoint, just bear in mind all the unchecked impulses you’re setting up for. And don’t ask why your Q and A session ends up being so fragmented and tiresome.

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