Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

I Want What Is Best for You, But What Is Easy for Me

We make different selections for other people than for ourselves.

At the end of a long week, we often order takeout food from a local restaurant rather than cooking.  There are a lot of restaurants in Austin, and many of them serve really excellent food.  Yet, we tend to order from the same small list of places.  There are better restaurants, but by the time we get down to ordering, we are most interested in doing what is easiest.  The places we normally pick are within a few minutes’ drive of the house. 

This example rests on two factors that influence a lot of our choices:  desirability and feasibility.  Desirability is how much we want a particular option.  Feasibility reflects how easy it is to get that option or how likely we are to succeed if we make a particular choice.

An interesting paper by Jingyi Lu, Xiaofei Xie, and Jingzhe Xu in the February, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored how we trade off between these concerns.  They suggest that people pay more attention to feasibility information when making a choice for themselves than when making a choice for someone else.

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In previous blog entries, I have talked about an observation that came from research by Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman that we tend to think about things more specifically when they are psychologically nearer to us than when they are psychologically distant.  In the case of decisions, making a choice for yourself puts you psychologically closer to that choice than making a choice for someone else.  When you think specifically about a choice, you generally focus on the specific circumstance you are in.  So, you are concerned about whether the option is feasible. When you think generally abstractly about a choice, you focus on more general concerns like whether the option is going to be enjoyable. 

To test this proposal, the researchers did several studies. In one experiment, college students could choose to purchase coupons for restaurants.  Some participants selected restaurants for themselves, while others were asked how much a typical student would be willing to pay for these coupons.  One restaurant was described as having excellent food and being very popular, but also being far away and often crowded so that there is a wait to get a table.  The other was described as having decent food, but being close by without long waits to get a table.  When choosing for themselves, people were willing to pay more for the nearby restaurant than for the restaurant with good food.  When choosing for a typical other person, people were willing to pay more for the restaurant with good food than for the restaurant that was close by.

A second study examined the kind of information people seek when making choices.  In this experiment, the materials were descriptions of classes.  People were asked to choose a course either for themselves or for a typical student.   Each option was described by 10 features.  Five of those were related to how desirable a class was likely to be (like how interesting it is or how much depth it covers).  Five were related to how easy it would be to complete the class successfully (like passing rate and difficulty of the assignments).  People had to select which five features they wanted to see.  Participants choosing for themselves were more likely to select information about how easy the class would be to complete than people who were choosing for a typical student. 

A third set of studies had people make choices and then later asked them what they remembered about the options.  In this study, people making choices for someone else remembered more about how desirable the options were than those who were making choices for themselves. 

Putting all of this together, we treat choices differently depending on whether we are making a decision for ourselves or for someone else.  When we choose for ourselves, we are mentally nearer to the decision than when we are choosing for someone else.   As a result, when choosing for ourselves, we focus on information that is related to the ease of the options, but when choosing for someone else we focus on the desirability of the options. 

If you find yourself opting for the easy choice, then, you can get yourself out of that rut by imagining what someone else would do in the same situation.  That can get you to think more about picking will be most enjoyable for you.

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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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