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Have you ever gotten home after a particularly taxing day and your will-power and resolve to eat healthy crumbled the minute you saw the chocolate cake sitting on the counter? Have you ever set your budget for the month, and after an exhausting week, splurged on a pair of shoes you knew you couldn't afford? As we make decision after decision during the day, our ability to make quality decisions decreases. Without realizing it we are depleting our mental energy, a finite source. As an article in the New York Times stated, "No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price."

The idea that our ability to make sound and reliable decisions declines as the day progresses is relevant to all aspects of our life, but it also has important consequences in market research. When writing surveys, we often make sure that we have answered our clients' needs sufficiently and try to resist making a survey that could cause survey fatigue, but what if the respondent is already fatigued before starting the survey?

Imagine this respondent: She had a rough day at work and had to make a lot of last-minute decisions on a project to make sure it got out the door on time. After work, she stopped by the grocery to decide what to make for dinner that night and pick up the groceries needed. After making dinner and spending time with her family, she sits down on the couch to relax for a few minutes and notices the survey waiting for her.

Before this respondent even starts the survey, she is mentally exhausted and her decision making abilities are almost non-existent. As a researcher, when making the survey you tried to keep the survey short, but just making the survey shorter isn't enough. The placement and type of questions asked and the decisions the respondent has to make in the survey can be just as important.


  1. Correct placement of questions is crucial. If you know there are three questions that are very important to your client, move them to the front. Even if a respondent isn't suffering from decision fatigue before entering the survey, the more questions the respondent has to answer the more decision fatigue will set in. By placing the important questions at the beginning, you are ensuring your respondent's mind is at its "freshest" in the survey-taking process.

  2. Consider the types of questions you are asking your respondents. Purchase interest and appeal questions will be much less mentally taxing on a respondent than questions that require them to read long attribute lists and make a decision.

  3. Focus on attribute lists. One of the most exhaustive points in a survey can be trying to decide the most important attribute in a list of 30. Spend time thinking about each attribute on the list and how important it really is to the overall objective. Past research on decision making has shown that people are generally more satisfied when given less options and can actually find the task of choosing between many options debilitating and exhausting.

Decision fatigue is something everyone experiences on a daily basis. As researchers, we should focus on creating surveys that help relieve some of this fatigue, instead of contributing to it.

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