The Origin of Choices

Why we choose the things we do

What Drives People to the Fork in the Road?

Problems are the precursors of choice.

Every theory of choice of which I am aware assumes that choice begins when a person encounters a problem. Theories vary on whether problem onset must be conscious or non-conscious, but they do not vary on the idea that the person who has arrived at a fork in the road began down the road because of a problem. (For a more comprehensive discussion of consciousness in decision-making see Carlson et al. 2014)

Problems can be big (the house is on fire) or small (the toaster is not working), personal (I am tired) or professional (I have too much to do), cognitive (I lost my train of thought) or social (some people think I’m mean). And problems may reflect difficulties (why can’t I lose weight) or opportunities (what should I do with this inheritance). Initially it may seem odd to classify opportunities as problems. But to the person who is gracefully making her way down a path, an opportunity to change course, is indeed a problem, a problem that requires a choice. So for the purpose of understanding the ontogenesis of choice, opportunities are just as problematic as difficulties.

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Though theories of choice assume that problems trigger the search for solutions, these theories do not specify the steps between problem onset and the willful pursuit of a solution. My view is that there are three steps between problem onset and the willful pursuit of a solution, which often culminates in a choice. These steps, which I overview below are: 1) believing a problem exists, 2) believing there is a viable solution to the problem, and 3) believing now is the right time to seek the solution.  

Problem to Choice
The 3 Steps from Problem to Choice Process
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The first and most obvious step is that the person must believe a problem exists. For example, a person who is overweight may not believe they have a weight problem until their doctor tells them they are overweight. And even after being told they are overweight, they may believe this is temporary and so not a problem at all. When I ask people to report how much they weigh, and then ask them if their estimate is a bit off whether it is too high or too low, the majority (about 65 percent) say that if their weight report was wrong, it was probably too low. Since these responses were collected anonymously, I attribute them not to self-presentation, but rather to an optimism in initial weight estimates, and optimism that causes people to believe their true weight is less than their current weight. For example, if you ask me what I weigh, I don’t think you want to know what I weigh at this exact moment. I think you want to know what I typically weigh, and that means what I will weigh in the near future and forever after. If I believe my current overweight state is a temporary blip, then why would I believe I have a weight problem?

But even if I acknowledge that I am overweight, and that it is not a blip in my life timeline, I may choose to believe it is not a problem at all. Instead I may choose to believe that “big is beautiful.” And I might even engage in activities that support this world view. Such activities might include surrounding myself with overweight friends or attributing my back problems to a poorly designed chair, rather than to the bowling ball I’m carrying around my mid-section.

If I acknowledge that I have a problem, then the second step is to believe that action can resolve the problem. If I don’t believe action can resolve the problem, then there’s no point wasting time seeking non-existent alternatives to resolve it. To pass this stage requires that one believes a solution exists for them personally. Returning to our weight example, this highlights why the discovery that some obesity stems from genetics is such a damning truth. Those who wish to ignore their weight problem can simply believe it is genetic, meaning that all possible behavioral solutions are non-viable for them. And in some very sad situations, overweight adults might even foster conditions that cause their children to become overweight, thereby reinforcing their theory that genetics is the cause of their weight problem. However, if one admits they do indeed have a problem and that a viable solution exists for them personally, then there is just one more stage to pass through before the process of seeking a solution can begin.

For someone to seek a solution to a problem, they must believe it is sufficiently more important than their other problems that it merits action now. This means that they believe not addressing the problem will have greater negative consequences than not addressing other problems. Some problems just don’t seem to be all that impending when considered against others. This is likely the case for our overweight person. This person did not wake up overweight—the process of becoming so was a gradual and mounting. Thus, he correctly presumes that waiting one day to solve the problem is unlikely to matter. The trouble of course is that days add up and so does the incremental risk, until the cumulative risk is substantial.

In sum, the road leading to the fork in the road is paved with the following: a) believing a problem exists, b) believing a viable solution to the problem exists, and c) believing that now is the right time to try to solve the problem. If all of these hurdles are passed, then people will seek a solution to the problem. Upon finding possible solutions, the person will be faced with a choice. And thus, this is how problems lead to choice.

Given the multitude of things that precede a willful choice, it is perhaps surprising that anyone ever makes a choice without being forced to do so. In fact, I believe this process benefits from the unrealistic optimism that plagues most people. And while it can get us into trouble from time to time, it might be this very optimism to believe solutions exist that helps us make choices to resolve our problems. Paradoxically though, it might be this same optimism that causes us to code problems as non-problems and to believe that a problem need not be dealt with now because the future will resolve them. 

Kurt A. Carlson, Ph.D. is an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and the director of the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research.

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