In an advertisement by Microsoft for their To-Do product they use a statistic that we "make over 35,000" decisions a day. Unsurprisingly, they don't cite a source. Is there any scholarly basis for such a figure?

Even though there are usually 86400 seconds in a day (that works out to one decision every ~2.5 seconds if you include time sleeping) you could reasonably make an argument for that number. I say that, however, without a good operational definition for "decision". Executive function researchers may outright say that figure is bunk.

Q: Careless usage aside, is there a source for this statistic and/or a more scholarly correct number for the "number of decisions we make each day"?

Apparently the statistic is widely "cited" (without proper citation) online. Here are a few instances (if any are left as comments I'll include them below):

This question was asked on Skeptics SE, but closed without a response:
Do people make 35000 decisions a day? [closed]

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Concurring with the comments on the Skeptics question, I am also not aware of a standardized operationalization of "number of decisions" that could be used to produce a meaningful measure for this, and to my knowledge no (serious) research has attempted to calculate a daily tally.

This clearly poses little challenge for the numerous references to this and other unsourced/uncited statistics. While references on various blogs, social media, self-help books, and other questionable sources are not of much note, there are a few citations made on media outlets that readers might take more seriously, such as:

The Telegraph UK (2016):

They say the average person makes 35,000 decisions a day.

Huffington Post UK (2014):

According to newspaper ‘USA Today’ the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions each day.

Phrasings such as "they say...", "it is thought that...", "according to various online sources...", etc are not very committal about validity, and the above quotes do only appear in the "Lifestyle" sections of these newspapers, so there is not much impetus for journalistic integrity.

Articles often mention other corroborating research to make the "35,000" statistic sound more plausible. An example from a different Huffington Post UK (2011) article (found on Mirror magazine as well):

The average Brit makes 773,618 decisions in a lifetime but lives to regret as many as 143,262 of them, a study has found. ... The study of 2,000 indecisive Brits, by Nintendo Puzzler Mind Gym 3D, found that ...

That's right, Nintendo - the game system company - purportedly conducted this apparently unpublished poll, giving a much lower number of decisions statistic (around 27 per day).

Another example on a Psychology Today (2012) article:

According to a survey by Columbia University decision researcher, Sheena Iyengar, the average American makes approximately 70 conscious decisions every day.

Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia, also apparently did not publish her survey findings, but she does discuss it on TED (2012):

I recently did a survey with over 2,000 Americans, and the average number of choices that the typical American reports making is about 70 in a typical day.

Here is something from reference.com:

Each individual is different, so it is impossible to pinpoint a specific number of daily decisions that applies to every individual, but Time magazine puts the number in the thousands.

The referenced Time Magazine article indeed says:

Every day, we face thousands of decisions both major and minor ...

How silly. Here is another interesting item from reference.com:

The average person has about 48.6 thoughts per minute, according to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California. That adds up to a total of 70,000 thoughts per day.

The source cited for this amazing claim does not corroborate this ... any more, but it did!

How many thoughts does the average person have per day? *70,000

So let's see, 70k thoughts per day, 35k decisions per day ... that's about 1 out of every 2 thoughts is a decision? The other 1 in 2 thoughts must be the ones about sex. But wait, what's the asterisk (*) about? Ah:

*This is still an open question (how many thoughts does the average human brain processes in 1 day). LONI faculty have done some very preliminary studies using undergraduate student volunteers and have estimated that one may expect around 60-70K thoughts per day. These results are not peer-reviewed/published. There is no generally accepted definition of what "thought" is or how it is created. In our study, we had assumed that a "thought" is a sporadic single-idea cognitive concept resulting from the act of thinking, or produced by spontaneous systems-level cognitive brain activations.

The most credible corroborating research I've seen so far is the Wansink & Sobal (2007) paper: "Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook", published in the journal Environment and Behavior. Keeping in mind that neither author is a cognitive scientist, and that this article concerns nutritional health, not psychological measurements, this is nonetheless a very well cited paper. In the paper, the authors explain:

One hundred and fifty adults ... were initially asked to estimate how many total decisions about foods and beverages they make in one day. They were then asked six questions about snacks, six questions about meals, and six questions about beverages. ... While the typical person estimated they made around 15 food and beverage decisions in a day, the average that was calculated from subsequent questioning was 219, approximately 200 more.

I'm not sure if the authors truly believe that this methodology conclusively sets the total number of daily food-related decisions, or if they were just pointing out that we are often not aware of many of the decisions that we make, but it is not difficult to imagine that if the survey contained more or fewer detailed "subsequent" questioning, then the total number of decisions would increase or decrease accordingly. Regardless, this paper is an important reference for the author's self-help book - Mindless Eating (2006):

The phrase "mindless eating" refers to the empirical finding that people make nearly 20 times more daily decisions about food than they are aware of (an average of around 200 each day).

With a range of between 27 and 35,000 decisions per day, I think you can just pick any number you want for this statistic. These types of claims are often associated with reference to research on decision fatigue and ego-depletion - a controversial idea about the limits of human capacity for decision making.

Anyways, I hope you had as much fun reading this answer as I had writing it. Also, according to the Arnon Science Foundation, recent research proves that voting up this answer will make your day up to 32% better, so be sure to improve your average daily decision making by showing your support!

  • 2
    Had to give a +1 for "Arnon Science Foundation, recent research proves that voting up this answer will make your day up to 32% better" lol – Chris Rogers Apr 22 '17 at 19:14
  • @Chris Have an up-vote for your comment on up-voting, I hope it makes you day better! – Comte Apr 27 '17 at 11:14

A serious answer exists to a sort-of-related question though, you can track the "energy budget" of the brain and see how much glucose/oxygen it's burning. 'Number of decisions' might be a silly way to talk about it, but [metabolic] brain effort can be quantified and it does make sense to ask how high it is and how much it changes over the course of a day. There are lots of studies comparing the level of activity associated with some task with resting-state activity: you could take the size of the difference for some reference task (it's gonna be small) and work out a plausible range for the amount of time the brain spends working at least that hard over the course of a normal day. There's a quick fact-collection on this stuff here (2002): http://www.pnas.org/content/99/16/10237

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