March 14, 2012 at 2:08 PM ET
If you've ever felt overwhelmed by deciding what brand of toothpaste to buy or what flight to book, two marketing professors think they know why.
"Decision quicksand," a painful element of 21st century life, ironically strikes hardest when people face trivial choices, say researchers Aner Sela of the University of Florida and Jonah Berger of the Wharton School, in a paper to be published later this year in the “Journal of Consumer Research.”
While struggles to pick a new job or a select a mate might seem to demand the most deliberation, decision quicksand strikes even harder over trivial choices. Little decisions cause a big problem precisely because they are surprisingly hard. Faced with too many options, consumers unconsciously connect difficulty with importance, and their brains are tricked into heavy deliberation mode, the researchers say in their paper, “Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In."“One could imagine a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty and perceived importance," write Sela and Berger. "Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation but may kick off a cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant."
The challenge of too many choices -- a bane of life in the age of information overload -- arises in part because people fail to recognize decisions as relatively unimportant.
"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?” the authors ask. “… Instead of realizing that picking a toothbrush is a trivial decision, we confuse the array of options and excess of information with decision importance, which then leads our brain to conclude that this decision is worth more time and attention."
But something else is going on, they contend: our brains are ruled by an unconscious force that mistakes difficulty – any difficulty -- for importance.
To test their theory, the researchers set up numerous experiments. In one, volunteers were asked to select a flight using an online service. Half the volunteers were forced to use a site with a small, hard-to-read font. That one extra hurdle added nearly 50 percent to their deliberation time. When told that the trip was short, so flight choice didn't matter as much, deliberation choice time spiked even more. (The researchers controlled for added time that could be blamed on simple difficulty reading.)
Decision struggles can be blamed for many poor outcomes – couples’ spats in the grocery store, or at the video rental place come to mind. But there are longer-term consequences. Research shows that time spent in decision quicksand before a choice correlates with dissatisfaction after the fact. And of course, there’s all that wasted time and emotional energy.
If you are still debating whether or not you should read on, of if you should "like" my columns on Facebook (YOU SHOULD), the authors offer some simple advice:
*Set decision rules and stick to them. In other words, start with a time limit that reflects the true importance of the choice. For example, "I will book a flight in 5 minutes, no matter what."
*Delegate unimportant decisions: “Honey, you pick the toothpaste.”
*Breaks can also help. Spending time away from a decision-making process can free the brain from an obsessive loop. "Even minor interruptions, short breaks, or momentary task switching can change information processing from a local, bottom-up focus to a top-down, goal-directed mode," the authors say.
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