Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Getting Stuck in Trivial Choices

We often waste our time in choices that don't matter.

I generally try to speed through the grocery store when I’m doing the shopping. I want to get everything on my list, but I would really rather be somewhere else. 

I do like to watch other people shopping, though. I guess it is an occupational hazard. And every once in a while, I find someone standing in front of a wall of tomato sauce, conditioner, or baked beans trying to figure out which one to buy. In the grand scheme of things, that particular choice is probably not that important, yet someone can spend a few minutes contemplating the benefits of one brand over another. If you asked shoppers whether it was worth spending so much time choosing that product, they would probably say no, yet they do it anyhow.

Why?

This issue was addressed in a paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. 

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They suggest that unimportant decisions can suck us in when they are more difficult than we expect them to be. They call these choices decision quicksand, because they pull you in and take more effort than they deserve.

In one experiment, they used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Mechanical Turk is a marketplace where people can do simple questionnaires and other tasks and get paid to do them. Many researchers have taken to using this site to collect data. 

They gave people the opportunity to select a task to perform some time in the future. The task was described by simple features like whether it was going to be fun or boring, how much time it would take, and how much they would be paid. Half the people were told that their selection was binding, so the decision was important, while the other half were told that they could switch tasks later, so their decision was not that important. 

Some people were given an easy choice between one option that was going to be fun, fast, and would pay well and another that was going to be boring, slow, and low-paying. The people given the easy choice made a quick decision regardless of whether they were given the binding or non-binding versions of the choice.

Other people were given a harder decision task in which all of the tasks had both good and bad characteristics. In this case, the people who were making the binding choice made a fairly quick decision, but those who were making the non-binding choice actually took almost twice as long to choose. That is, the people with the less important version of the choice actually took more time to make the hard decision than those with the more important decision to make.

A second experiment in this paper found that unimportant choices that were unexpectedly difficult led people to seek more information. In this study, people were told to imagine that they had to choose a flight for a business trip. The flight was either a short and easy flight or a long and tiring one. The task was made easy or hard by varying how hard it was to read the information about the flights. In the easy version of the task, the options were written in a clear font. In the hard version of the task, the options were written in low contrast so that they were difficult to read. 

After seeing an initial set of options, people were asked if they wanted to choose from among the set they saw or whether they wanted to see more options. People who got the easy-to-read versions of the options were equally likely to want to see more options regardless of whether they were making a choice for a short or a long flight. People who got the options that were hard-to-read were more likely to want to see additional options when choosing a short flight than when choosing a long flight. That is, they requested more information for the less important choice.

What is going on here?

When we make choices, we have to trade off between effort and accuracy. So, we ought to spend the most time on the most important choices in an effort to make sure we get the best option in that case. 

But, how do we know how much time we should spend on a choice? At the beginning, we make an estimate of how easy the choice is going to be. When we expect a choice to be hard and it is, then we are likely to focus just on the options and not on the difficulty of the decision. But, when we expect the choice to be easy and it turns out to be hard, then we are surprised by that difficulty. We naturally respond to that unexpected difficulty with more effort, even though that additional effort really is not necessary. That response reflects that a little extra effort often allows us to solve the problems we encounter in daily life.

So, what can you do? When you go to the grocery store—or anywhere else where you don’t really need to make a very accurate decision—keep your focus on reaching a decision. Take a moment to short-circuit your desire to keep working on decisions that don’t matter very much and save your effort for the choices that are really important.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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