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The Strange Power of "None of the Above"

How the choice not to do nothing can help you stick to your goals

There are a lot of times in our lives when we are deciding what to do, and we have to make a choice between two (or more) options. And quite often, there is an unstated alternative: choosing none of the above. This certainly doesn’t seem like it should matter, but new research by Rom Schrift and Jeffrey Parker soon to be published in Psychological Science suggests that “none of the above” actually has some important consequences. It has to do with what can be learned by observing what choices people make.

Let’s start with the simple case of a choice between two options. What could you learn about me if I choose option A over option B? Really, all you would know for sure is that I prefer A to B, and not whether I think either option is objectively good or bad. If some hypothetical madman forced me to choose between a punch in the arm and a kick in the jewels, I’d take the punch. But you shouldn’t conclude from that choice that I actually enjoy getting punched in the arm. If I had the option to choose neither, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so. But what about a situation when I’m not forced to choose? When the dessert cart rolls around at the end of a meal, I always have the option to forgo dessert entirely. Thus, if I choose the chocolate cake, you can infer not just that I prefer it to the apple pie, but that I really like it—otherwise, I wouldn’t have ordered anything at all. By observing my choice, you’ve learned something about me, but I’ve also learned something about myself. This is an insight from Self-Perception Theory, put forth by Daryl Bem (yes, ESP Daryl Bem). The theory proposes that, much like we learn information about other people’s inner states (beliefs, preferences, attitudes, etc.) by observing their outward behavior, we learn about our own inner states by observing our own behavior. That is, if I had never considered whether I preferred chocolate cake to apple pie, I now have some data (my choice) suggesting that I do. What’s more, since I had the option to choose neither cake nor pie, I have learned that I must really like chocolate cake (it must be worth all those extra calories!).

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If we learn something about ourselves when a no-choice option is present (rather than absent), when choosing a task over “none of the above,” we should infer that we really value that task, and work harder on it. That is, if I choose to work on writing a paper over catching up with my email, I’ve only learned that the paper was probably more important than email right then. But, if it’s clear that I’m choosing to work on the paper over doing neither of those two things, that choice is more meaningful: this paper must be really important, and I’m really interested in working on it. Armed with this knowledge, I’m going to spend more time working on the paper than I otherwise would have.

Schrift and Parker demonstrate this idea in a series of clever experiments. For instance, participants in one experiment were asked to choose between a “cognitive task” or a “perception task” where they would earn money for each correct response. In fact, both tasks were identical (involving counting up the “point value” of a series of words, where each letter in the word was assigned a number of points), but the crucial element was the sense that a choice had been made. Some participants were only offered a choice between the two tasks, whereas others were also given a third option: to do neither task. All participants chose to do one of the two tasks, so the no-choice option wasn’t particularly alluring, but its mere presence had an impact: participants explicitly offered the no-choice option worked harder and longer on the task they chose, and earned 20 percent more money. By making their choice more meaningful, these participants inferred that they must be really interested in doing the task they chose, and worked harder as a result. It’s important to note that even when it wasn’t explicitly offered, all participants had the option to do neither task; doing the task earned them extra money on top of their base pay, so it was always completely optional. Since it was conducted online, they could simply close the browser window and move on to something else at any time.

There could certainly be opportunities to put this phenomenon to use, especially since it involves merely reframing the choices that are already available. Indeed, thinking about choices in these terms (something over nothing) could help us persist at tasks that are important to our success. If it’s clear that I’m choosing to work on writing a paper over doing nothing at all, then maybe I’ll get it done faster than if I had made the more mundane choice of paper over email. As the researchers note, people who are in charge of providing an array of choices for other people (“choice architects” in the language of Nudge) can do more to make the no-choice option explicit—helping doctors encourage their patients to stick to a course of treatment, for instance. Even making it clear that people are making a choice at all might help. There are, of course, caveats. What happens if people make the “wrong” choice? Back to the cake example: if I choose to eat some kind of dessert, I may infer that my diet doesn’t really mean that much to me and be even more likely to give into temptation the next time. And if I choose to procrastinate (doing nothing) over any of the projects I should be working on, I might find myself sliding down the slippery slope of Mt. Not-Getting-Anything-Done. To be sure, care must be taken; if the no-choice option is actually appealing, you’re better off pretending it doesn’t exist.

My uncle once told me a story (that very well might have been made up) about interviewing candidates for a government job. He was required to ask certain perfunctory questions, like “Do you advocate the overthrow of the US government through violence or revolution?” Clearly the correct answer, assuming you’d like to avoid the no-fly list, is an emphatic “No!” One person, however, paused for several seconds before responding “Well… revolution, I guess.” Although not helpful for this particular job interview, perhaps this tendency does have some benefits: perceiving a choice that isn’t really obvious (or in this case, really offered) could actually lead to harder work in the long run. 

Travis J. Carter, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He studies decision-making, motivation, and cognition.

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