Lee Schafer
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Retailers like Best Buy Co. last week made shoppers’ lives better by requiring face coverings in their stores, and not just by making the stores safer to work in or visit.

Soon there will be no choice but to wear a mask into stores from Walmart to Target to Costco. And fewer choices to make is one thing we all could use.

Eliminating decisions that need to be made turns out to be one good answer to a vexing question: how to meet the challenge of protecting yourself from the novel coronavirus and the resulting illness, COVID-19.

It’s now more than half a year into this terrible infectious-disease crisis. The evidence has gotten stronger on the benefits of wearing face masks to reduce transmission. The same goes for the importance of staying out of close contact with other people who might only be talking or singing, particularly indoors and in poorly ventilated spaces.

Could it really be that people struggle with the self-control required to wear masks all the time or stay away from house parties?

“I think you are on to something,” replied Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management with a deep background in psychology and human behavior.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for behavior challenges, she said in an e-mail. It has combined our need for being part of groups and seeing other people, hard to satisfy these days, with a fluid and risky situation where we have to decide what’s prudent to do.

The problem with confronting tough choices is not just that they are hard. Vohs and others in the field have shown that making decisions, over and over throughout a day, can use up our capacity for self-control.

“It’s not a surprise that we are seeing behaviors such as people forgoing masks and gathering in closely packed groups,” she explained. “I am not saying that I think those are wise choices, but rather that they are predictable from a behavioral science standpoint.”

Vohs teaches aspiring managers that they should know how people process information and make decisions in the marketplace, including when deciding what to buy.

A great example of psychology research in business is on the benefits of consumer choice. Consumers usually say they love having choice, but they may not really mean it. Lots of research has shown that if consumers feel overwhelmed by too much choice, they might not buy anything.

Shoppers were more likely to buy, and be happier with their choice, when selecting between six different kinds of jam rather than 24. So why offer them 24?

As for this more or less fixed capacity to make decisions, maybe the way to think of it is as a kind of battery that recharges overnight and then gets run down.

One problem with this limited resource, particularly with an infectious disease in the community, is that it’s the same battery that people need to keep powering their self-control.

Ever snack at the end of a long and stressful workday, maybe put away a whole box of Girl Scout Cookies? That’s the kind of thing that probably wouldn’t happen just after breakfast.

Maybe Vohs wouldn’t love this description, but I think of self-control as the ability to override the impulse to do something when after a little thought, we land on a much better option — like a hard pass on the invitation to join friends at a birthday party when there’s a slew of new COVID-19 cases being reported every day.

The experiments Vohs and her research colleagues have done on decisions that later influence self-control are all fascinating. One asked subjects to make a bunch of choices and then tested how much of a vinegar-flavored beverage they could be persuaded to drink.

Another probed the effects of declining capacity by looking into how well shoppers at a mall could do arithmetic problems, noting when they gave up trying, after having made varying numbers of purchase choices.

Since everyone seems to exhaust this intellectual resource eventually, it seemed important to get some 2020 recommendations from Vohs. Her thoughts boiled down to enhancing our ability to make good decisions by cutting down on the number we have to make.

One trick might be to establish and stick to routines, like establishing laundry day, rather than getting to the evening and then trying to decide whether there’s any energy left for sorting and washing a couple of loads. Plan the week’s dinner menu, eliminating having to decide what’s for dinner each night.

Maybe this pandemic era isn’t the best time to embark on self-improvement, either, like getting in better physical shape. Odds aren’t good people would make much progress anyway, and the effort would come at the expense of doing the things they know will keep them safer.

“On a more mundane level, people also could give themselves a break on daily tasks that require decisionmaking and self-control,” Vohs added. “Maybe the bed doesn’t need to be made every day. Maybe the shower doesn’t need to be cleaned each week. Maybe it’s OK if the house is not as tidy as you’d otherwise have it.”

She has found that she is watching a lot more cable TV lately when she ordinarily would prefer something from the premium streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

To stream, she would have to spark up another electronic device and then scroll through options of what to watch. Cable TV is less taxing.

Maybe the best way to cut down on necessary decisions isn’t really her suggestion, but mine — and it’s maybe the simplest one:

Stay home unless someone really needs to be out.