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Getting Mired In Trivial Choices: Why More Options Doesn’t Mean More Important

By now, our tendency to not decide optimally is well documented. When it comes to buying toothpaste or a new pair of jeans social science research has spoken: we’re not only irrational – we’re predictably irrational. What’s more is the fact that too much choice is actually harmful to our well-being. When there is an option for everything, we suffer.

Psychologists term this the paradox of choice, and it describes how we become less satisfied the more choices there are. Think about shopping for jeans. The more there are the more you expect to find a perfect fit. At the same time, it’s less likely that you pick correctly the larger the array. You walk out of the store less confident in your choice while worrying about the pairs that might have been better.

What’s interesting about the paradox of choice is that it doesn’t discriminate much. We struggle with important decisions like buying a new home, finding the right wife or husband, or picking health care plans. This is understandable. But the little things give us stress as well. Finding the perfect toothpaste can’t be that important, can it? The brain, in other words, doesn’t do a good job of realizing what’s at stake when we decide.

This poses a peculiar predicament for psychologists: why do our brains get so caught up in unimportant decisions? This brings me to a new paper (to be published in August) by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. They ask: “Why do people get mired in seemingly trivial decisions? Why do we agonize over what toothbrush to buy, struggle with what sandwich to pick, and labor over which shade of white to paint the kitchen?”

Sela and Berger use the term “decision quicksand” to describe how we get sucked into unimportant decisions. Their key insight is that the brain conflates excess information with importance. This means that the more options there are, the more time and attention we give, even if we are just picking trivial items. Here are the scientists:

If people form inferences about decision importance from their own decision efforts, then not only might increased perceived importance lead people to spend more time deciding, but increased decision time might, in turn, validate and amplify these perceptions of importance, which might further increase deliberation time. Thus, one could imagine a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance. Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation, but may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant. Quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems the more people struggle.

To demonstrate their point, Sela and Berger conducted a series of clever experiments. In one, they gave participants a selection of airline options. The scientists created two groups: the participants in the high-difficult condition were given the options in small, low contrast font; in the low-difficult condition, the participants were given the same options in a larger, high contrast font. The researchers found two things. The first, and less surprisingly discovery, was that participants in the high-difficulty condition spent more time deliberating the options. The more interesting finding is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance. Moreover, the researchers found that this effect was pronounced when participants were told that the choice of flights was actually unimportant. In a world where there is an option for everything, it’s no wonder why we stress over the little things.

The good news is that many companies are beginning to recognize the implications of this cognitive misfiring. Several years ago Proctor & Gamble saw a 10 percent increase in sales when they reduced the number of Head and Shoulders variants from 26 to 15. They found similar results when they deployed the same strategies with Tide and Ivory soap. Likewise, The Golden Cat Corp. reported a 12 percent increase in sales when they eliminated 10 of its worst-selling kitty-litters. Even Wal-Mart is weighing in. Back in 2010 the retail giant dropped two of its five lines of peanut butter, which resulted in an increase in sales. “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety,” said Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart in Mississauga. “With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

These strategies couldn’t come soon enough. Over the last several years psychologists have documented the negative effects that come with choice overload. They use the term “Decision Fatigue” to describe this phenomenon. The problem is that deciding takes mental effort; it reduces willpower and encourages procrastination. When we are overwhelmed with choice we tend to be more irrational than normal. Here’s John Tierney, New York Times writer and co-author of Willpower with a brief synopsis of the idea:

There is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser.

How do we remedy this first world problem? When it comes to important decisions, it’s probably a good thing to stress a little bit. But when there isn’t much on the line – what toothpaste to buy for example – remember that the stress you experience is likely a cognitive illusion. With this in mind, try to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer; trying to be optimal is nearly impossible – settle for what suffices.

 

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