A neuroscientist explains why he always picks the 2nd menu item on a list of specials

Moran Cerf is the opposite of a picky eater.

For the past year, whenever the Northwestern University neuroscientist has gone out to eat, he’s automatically selected the second menu item on the list of specials, no matter what it is.

“Sometimes it’s a big failure, but sometimes it’s also a big failure when I choose myself,” he said.

Cerf researches decision-making — specifically, how the brain works in the moments right before a decision is executed. His work has given him an understanding of how mentally draining it can be to make decisions — there are only so many choices we can make in a given day before our brains just kind of give up.

This concept is known as “decision fatigue.” It’s the reason Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has such a simple wardrobe, so he can save his decision-making energy for when the stakes are high. And it’s why after-work happy hours so often turn into an all-night ragers; after exhausting your cognitive abilities at the office, your brain has essentially run out of juice, so it becomes much harder to exercise your best judgment.

Taking that insight to heart, Cerf has cut back significantly on how many small decisions he makes in a day. A big case is going out to eat, a situation in which Cerf trusts the restaurant’s judgment of what’s tasty far more than his own. He picks from the specials menu, he said, because it’s shorter; choosing the second menu item is arbitrary.

“I know the chance of making a mistake by giving someone else the choice is equal,” Cerf told Business Insider. “I might as well give someone else the choice for me.”

Cerf clarifies that he still makes choices to guide his life in a certain direction, rather than leaving it all to chance. But there’s an important distinction, he said: He prefers to make high-level choices, not low-level ones.

Even if he doesn’t pick the specific dish he eats, he may pick the restaurant. Or if he doesn’t pick the restaurant, he’ll make the plans with a friend who he knows has good taste in restaurants, and he’ll let them pick. This way, he makes one smart decision with trickle-down effects that boost his chances of being satisfied while also keeping his mind fresh.

“Instead of making twenty of them, you make just one,” he said.

Cerf routinely tells his students that the most important decision they can make in their lives is who they spend time with. Decision-making is such a faulty, unreliable gauge for increasing personal happiness that it makes more sense to insure some level of happiness by enjoying the company you’re with. That way you’ll enjoy yourself overall even if the details — like the second menu option on a list of specials — don’t always pan out.

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