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.
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.