In large swaths of Western culture, having a choice is perceived as a birthright and a foundation of freedom. To learn from psychological science that having a choice feels good feels good. If this sounds like a truism within a cliché wrapped in a tautology, it is fun to look at the exceptions.

Consider the truism part. Suppose you are offered a choice between (A) making a choice yourself between Boeuf Bourgignon and Burnt Burger and (B) flipping a coin to decide. Setting aside the possibility that making a choice of whether to make a choice might bias the process by way of automatic priming or self-herding, I venture to say that you will reject the coin option. If your choice is between (A) making a choice yourself and (B) having someone like Kevin James make a choice for you, you might still prefer to do it yourself, although the call may be closer (assuming that you're assuming Mr. James has your best interest at heart and that he can't have what you reject). At this point, your choosing to choose is a totally trivial phenomenon. Your choice pretty much guarantees that you get what you want, whereas the alternative process does not.

Now let's tighten the intellectual screw. Suppose you are deciding between (A) making a choice between Gougère and Pochouse, (B) flipping a coin, and (C) having Paul Bocuse decide for you. A is no longer a clear winner. B is out, but C is in the running. Why not rely on the expert when uncertain yourself?

Enter Sophie. Perhaps the most horrible choice a person can contemplate is having to choose which of two children will live and which will die. If one must die, why not defer to a die [a lousy pun if there ever was one] or the monster who will kill one of them? Again, this is tricky because the first-level choice can psychologically contaminate the second-level choice. If you choose to let the monster choose, you have in fact made a choice and you are thereby involved in the process that will bring on the burden of guilt later (I have argued against the rationality of guilt, but that does not mean that people like you and me will continue to feel it).

Let's review: By common-sense analysis, we can distinguish conditions under which having a choice is desirable from conditions under which it is undesirable. When there are clear preferences, choice is desirable, but the result is trivial. When there are no clear preferences, choice may become undesirable, and this result refutes the general equation of choice with pleasure.

Enter Leotti and Delgado (2011). These researchers tried to find a way to isolate an hedonic effect purely due to choice. In their experiment, participants won with equal probability either $0, $50, $100 in virtual money on a given trial. In the control condition, they received a visual cue telling them that the computer would randomly select one of two colored keys, which would then yield a monetary outcome [I am not sure how 2 keys map onto 3 outcomes]. In the experimental condition, they received a cue telling them that they themselves could choose a key. Notice that the expected value of the exercise was the same in the two conditions, namely $50 per trial. As it turned out, however, participants liked being able to make a choice. Brain imaging suggested that areas associated with the experience of reward were more active in the experimental condition than in the control condition.

Why did this happen? Leotti and Delgado want to suggest that the expectation of choice is inherently pleasurable - as the title of their paper makes clear. They consider two specific processes that might explain the results. One is rather boring, namely the idea that making an active choice is less boring than delegating it. The other process harkens back to a familiar cognitive fallacy, the illusion of control. Perhaps participants felt that by choosing a key they could increase their payoffs. This is psychologically plausible, but it was not measured in the experiment. If indeed having a choice gives rise to an illusion of control, it is no longer the anticipation of having a choice per se that feels good, but the perceived prospect of earning more money. If so, we are back to what we called the trivial preference for more cash.

What is needed, I think, is an experiment that leaves no doubt that one's exercise of choice will not affect one's financial welfare. Only then can we find out if choice is inherently pleasurable. I am imagining a set-up in which the particpant chooses which of two coins to flip. Now there is choice without control. Would this still be enough to activate the pleasure center? And if so, what would it mean?There is a flipside to what the Leotti & Delgado describe, and which they unfortunately do not acknowledge. Decades ago, Jack Brehm introduced the theory of reactance. He showed that people resent having their freedom of choice curtailed. In Brehm's research, participants often took some action out of spite even though the result was of no direct use to them. They did it to assert their right to make a choice. Leotti & Delgado used a within-person design, which means the same participants alternated between having a choice and having none. Their enjoyment of exercising a choice -- even without being able to exert control over the outcome -- could have been, in part, an expression of their reactance.

Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Academic Press.

Leotti, L. A., Delgado, M. R. (2011). The inherent reward of choice. Psychological Science, 22, 1310-1318, DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417005

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