Have an important decision to make? Make sure your bladder is full

You might be wondering whether you should quit the job you hate or stick to the convenience of a steady paycheck, or whether you should buy a new jumper or save the money to buy a car next year. You are confronted with choices that involve trade-offs, meaning you cannot enjoy the benefits of both options: you have to make a decision.


The big decision. Photo by leehobbi, source: Flickr.

Perhaps your decision-making approach involves listing the pros and cons of each option, or perhaps you have a “gut feeling” or even (who knows?) a vision of the future that helps you make up your mind. As it turns out, what can really help you choose the better option is a full bladder.

The conclusion is that of a study lead by Mirjam Tuk from the University of Twente in the Netherlands and published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science.

The idea of testing how people make decisions when they experience higher levels of bladder control came to Tuk during a long lecture. To stay awake, she drunk several cups of coffee which, by the end of the talk, had reached her bladder. The experiments Tuk and her collaborators designed were aimed at testing whether controlling a bodily function could improve self-control in other domains.

Two sets of participants were tested: one was told to drink five cups of water, while the other to take only five sips. After 40 minutes (the time it takes for the liquid to reach your bladder), the researchers assessed the participants’ decision-making abilities. They were asked to make choices—-such as deciding between receiving $16 tomorrow or $30 in about a month—-between a small, short-term reward and a larger, but delayed option. Tuk found that the group with a full bladder was better at exercising self-control and opted preferentially for the option that was more valuable in the long term.

Bill Ridgers reported this study in the Summer 2011 edition of the Intelligent Life (The Economist) magazine. Some of the readers commenting on the online version of the article, gave possible interpretations for Tuk’s results. “Perhaps the attention necessary not to pee yourself leaves room only for the essential considerations, eliminating irrelevant dither and self-doubt,” said one, and “The brain is forced to make a clear concise decision: pee or not? There’s no dithering involved,” wrote another.

Ridgers also reports on other external factors that influence our decision-making. Lack of sleep, for example, makes us too optimistic and more willing to take risks. Being sexually aroused also doesn’t help rational decision-making, as it makes us more impulsive, much as you’d expect.

While these “visceral states” have a negative impact on our ability to exert self-control, a full bladder is an example of one that doesn’t. Tuk says that the difference is that the latter is associated with inhibition rather than with approach.

So next time you have an important decision to make, have a good night of sleep beforehand, avoid any sexual excitement and, most importantly, drink plenty of water and wait until it reaches your bladder.


6 thoughts on “Have an important decision to make? Make sure your bladder is full

  1. Laura Wheeler

    Well I grapple with difficult decisions on a daily basis and usually I deal with them fine, in a calm and rational manner – but I have to admit I am extremely indecisive when it comes to ordering food at restaurants.  My friends always laugh at me as I take forever to decided what I want to eat, then when I am there ready to give my order, I get pressured, change my mind and then end up regretting my rash decision for the rest of the meal! I may have to take this advice into consideration, the next time I go out for food…..however I wish there were an easier option? Like some kind of decision making app that will just decide for you – anyone know of any?  Or alternatively, a good old “heads or tails!! “


  2. Tej Nishtala

    Quite an interesting post Barbara. Though I have never come across such situations as in the test, I’d definitely like to check how good it works. Besides decision making, what about task performing ability? Under full bladder condition, does somebody perform the task at hand much quicker and efficient at the same time? Does the ability to control help in channelising the thoughts for faster and efficient performance?   


  3. Barbara Ferreira

    @Laura: Surely there’s an app for that!
    @Tej: I am not aware of any studies on task-performing abilities on a full bladder. Perhaps someone should give it a try?


  4. Tej Nishtala

    Thanks for the reply Barbara. The reason I asked is because , it is also performing under pressure and I was curious if a similar mechanism plays a role. Like you said, may be someone should try!


  5. Laura Wheeler

    Ah I have found an App! The iDecide iPhone App it is apparently based on the advanced decision making methodology of the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP)!
    Tej you ask an interesting question, I guess making a decision can be easier when your mind is focused on other things (such as a full bladder) you are right it would be interesting to see if tasks are actually performed to higher standards! So ….Tej are you going to think of an experiment to test your hypothesis?


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