Why one neuroscientist never needs a menu

chalkboard menu
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Moran Cerf leaves the decision to fate because it's better for his brain.

When Moran Cerf goes to a restaurant, he doesn't ask to see a menu. Instead, he orders whatever the second item on the list of specials happens to be. Why? Because he prefers to save his mental energy for other, more important decisions throughout the day.

This curious technique caught my attention because it's the opposite of what I do. At a restaurant I insist on reading every single item on the menu and poring over the specials until I find the one thing that tickles my fancy on a particular day, then I fret over whether or not I made the right decision. The idea of entrusting that choice to someone else seems shocking.

And yet, Cerf swears by it. A professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University, he is an expert in the field of decision-making, particularly in how the brain works right before a decision is made. He has examined the causes and repercussions of 'decision fatigue,' that awful state that many of us reach at the end of a long day, when we've made so many decisions already that the thought of making another is overwhelming. That's often how poor choices are made; and, as Business Insider describes, it's the reason 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."

Some successful people, such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, fashion designer Vera Wang, former president Obama, and author Gretchen Rubin have dealt preemptively with decision fatigue by wearing pre-selected, repetitive outfits. Sticking with basic tees, jeans, yoga pants, and sneakers (or the same grey or blue suit, in Obama's case) make it easier to get dressed in the morning; there's no wasting time trying to figure out what to wear.

Cerf's restaurant ordering tactic is the same idea. As he told Business Insider, he's just as likely to make a mistake trying to choose it himself as he is leaving it up to the server: "Sometimes it's a big failure, but sometimes it's also a big failure when I choose myself." The choice of the second special is arbitrary; it could be any on the list.

Cerf does not hand off all decisions; he just prefers to make the high-level choices, not the 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."

It's an intriguing concept. I have adopted a more basic wardrobe, ever since reading about Gretchen Rubin wearing yoga pants and white t-shirts every day. Now I wear black leggings most days and rarely force myself into jeans. As for restaurant decisions, I'm less convinced. Eating out is still such a rare and special event for me that I don't think I would want to relinquish my decision-making power, although I must say, there is a thrilling element to the unexpected. One could certainly not be a picky eater, nor have serious allergies, to adopt such a practice.

Why one neuroscientist never needs a menu
Moran Cerf leaves the decision to fate because it's better for his brain.

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