Health Scan: Decisions, decisions

The 21st century has given us incredible choices in what to eat, where to work and how to live.

food 88 (photo credit: )
food 88
(photo credit: )
The 21st century has given us incredible choices in what to eat, where to work and how to live. But having so many options may not be good for us, according to University of Minnesota researchers who found we are less productive when faced with a plethora of choices. Writing in the April issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from several universities have determined that the human ability to weigh choices can come with some serious liabilities. People faced with numerous choices, whether good or bad, find it difficult to stay focused on completing projects, handle daily tasks or even take their medicine. Researchers conducted seven experiments involving 328 participants and 58 consumers at a shopping mall. In the lab experiments, some participants were asked to make choices about consumer products, college courses or class materials. Others did not have to make decisions but simply had to consider the options in front of them. The scientists then asked each group to participate in one of two unpleasant tasks. Some were told to finish a healthy but ill-tasting drink, while other participants were told to put their hands in ice water. The tasks were designed to test how the previous act of choosing - or not choosing - affected peoples' ability to maintain behavior aimed at reaching a goal. Researchers found that the participants who earlier had made choices had more trouble finishing the disagreeable but goal-focused tasks compared to participants who initially did not have to make choices. In other experiments, participants were given math problems to practice for an upcoming test. The participants who had to make important choices involving coursework spent less time solving the math problems and more time engaged in distractions such as video games or reading magazines, compared to participants who were not asked to make choices prior to that point. The participants who made choices also got more math problems wrong than participants not faced with decisions. To further buttress their lab findings, the researchers conducted a field test at a shopping mall, asking shoppers to report how much decision making they had done while shopping that day. When they were asked later to solve simple math problems, the researchers found that the more choices the shoppers had made earlier in the day, the worse they performed on the math problems. The authors note they controlled for how long the participants had been shopping and for demographic categories such as age, race, ethnicity and gender. Dr. Kathleen Vohs, the study's lead author, concluded that making choices apparently depletes a precious resource in the human mind. It seems that making choices, as opposed to just thinking about options, is especially taxing. "There is a significant shift in the mental programming at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or at some time in the future. Therefore, the act of choosing itself can cause mental fatigue," says Vohs. HEALTH MINISTER ON WOLFSON: BACK TO STATUS QUO ANTE Health Minister Yitzhak Ben-Yizri has called on the Treasury to halt the process of transferring Holon's Wolfson Medical Center from state ownership to that of Maccabi Health Services. The minister said that after years of efforts to transfer the hospital to the country's second-largest health fund, the process was getting nowhere. His minister would "stand by" Wolfson in all its struggles and help advance the hospital, Ben-Yizri said during a recent tour of the embattled facility. Hospital director Dr. Yitzhak Berlovich, a former deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, said that as a state employee, he would carry out government decisions. However, the inability of the government to get consent for the transfer from hospital staffers has led to instability, uncertainty and financial problems for Wolfson, as well as an unwillingness of qualified doctors and nurses to work there. "If the transfer is to be carried out, it should be implemented quickly; if not, it should be halted," said Berlovich, who added that the Treasury's budgets division initiated the transfer nearly five years ago. He could not say why Wolfson was singled out to be transferred to Maccabi. "We had a balanced budget and even some more, so that would make it attractive for the health fund," Berlovich said. But more recently, the Treasury has withheld funds, causing financial problems. Maccabi did not initiate the takeover, but was willing to do so, as it already owns the for-profit Assuta chain of hospitals.