Subject: Decision Fatigue/Ego Depletion – Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

Event:  Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, 49 B.C.

On this day in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar made a momentous decision that transformed a small Italian river into a powerful metaphor.  

Prior to 49 B.C., Caesar served as conquering Roman general, expanding the Roman Empire as far north as Britain.  His most notable conquest came in Gaul, the area of Europe that today includes France, Belgium, and Switzerland.  By winning the Gallic wars, Caesar made Gaul a Roman province and established himself as its governor.  

Retrato de Julio César (26724093101) (cropped).jpg
Julius Caesar (Wikipedia)

Although Caesar expanded the territory of the Roman republic, his rivals feared his ambition and envied his success.  Caesar’s most notable foe was a rival Roman general named Pompey.  In January 49 B.C., Pompey convinced the Roman Senate to send a message to Caesar, commanding him to leave his army and return to Rome.  

This message is what led to Caesar’s faithful decision to cross the Rubicon River.  He knew that returning to Rome alone without his army would surely lead to his demise.  Caesar also knew that taking his army across the Rubicon and into Italy was against Roman law and was essentially a proclamation of civil war. Knowing the consequences of his actions and that there would be no turning back, Caesar boldly led his army across the river as he uttered, “The die is cast!” — a gambling metaphor that means once a player throws (casts) the dice (plural form of die), he has reached a point of no return.

Caesar’s bold gamble paid off.  He defeated Pompey, and when he eventually arrived at the gates of Rome, he was proclaimed dictator for life (1). 

Caesar’s Rubicon has become a metaphor in our language, but it has also become a subject of study by psychologists interested in how we make decisions.  In the modern world, it seems that each of us is making more and more decisions each day, decisions that require mental effort.  Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion,” to describe the way that making decisions saps us of mental energy. 

To understand the decision-making process, researchers break it into three phases:  the pre-decision phase, the decision phase, and the post-decision Phase. In a study done at the University of Minnesota, researchers looked at each of these phases by examining the way that subjects thought about computers.  The pre-decision group was tasked with studying the advantages and disadvantages of different computer accessories; however, they were not asked to make any final decisions.  The post-decision group was given the task of configuring a computer, based on predetermined specifications.  The decision group was tasked not only with determining the best features for a computer but also with choosing them.

After completing their tasks, all subjects were given tests measuring their self-control.  By far, the decision group was most depleted.  It turns out that the act of making the decision was the most fatiguing.  As John Tierney explained in his article in The New York Times

The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed. As a result, someone without Caesar’s willpower is liable to stay put.

Studies completed in decision fatigue and ego depletion reveal that we don’t have unlimited stores of mental energy.  The more decisions we make, the less energy and willpower we have for additional decisions; furthermore, the more decisions we make the higher the likelihood that the quality of those decisions will be reduced.  Just as running with our legs or lifting with our arms fatigues our muscles, decision making fatigues our mind.  You might consider this, for example, the next time you have a choice whether to make a doctor’s appointment in the morning versus the afternoon.  Chances are the quality of your doctor’s decision-making ability will be diminished in the afternoon as a result of the multiple decisions she made earlier in the day (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can knowing about decision fatigue and ego depletion increase the likelihood of making decisions worthy of a Roman emperor?

Challenge – Casting the Die:  Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon was a big one.  What is another major decision from history, and why would you argue it was so important?


1-Eye Witness to Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon.

2-Tierney, John.  “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” The New York Times 17 August 2011.