Do You Make Good Decisions?

How initial preferences bias our final choices

Posted Jan 31, 2016

You’re on the jury for a criminal case, and the judge instructs you to weigh all the evidence before coming to a verdict. Yet as soon as you see the defendant, you know in your heart that he’s guilty. Is there any way you can set aside this initial judgment and consider the evidence in an unbiased manner? New research by Ohio State University psychologist Michael DeKay suggests that final decisions are almost always influenced by initial preferences.

In most real-life decisions, we have to evaluate the options one at a time rather than comparing them all simultaneously. If you’re in the market for a new car, you’ll test drive a car at one dealer, and then you’ll go to the next dealer and test drive a car there. The same is true if you’re looking for a new apartment. You visit one property, and then another, and then a third.

As long as none of the options is especially appealing, you just might be able to keep an open mind. However, as soon as you encounter an option that you really like, this early preference will then bias you against any further options you might consider. DeKay calls this predecisional information distortion.

You’ve probably experienced predecisional information distortion when shopping for a big-ticket item like a computer or home appliance. You find something you like, but you tell yourself you ought to do some more shopping around. You check out a few other stores, see nothing you like, and so you go back to the item that originally caught your attention. Maybe none of the other items were very good, but it’s also quite likely your mind was already biased against them.

There are a number of reasons why predecisional information distortion occurs. One reason is information overload. We like to believe that having more choices is better, but ample research in decision making shows this simply isn’t true. For instance, in the early days of TV, there were just three networks to choose from, so it was easy to decide what to watch. Now, cable TV offers us dozens of choices, and we complain there’s nothing on. Having too many choices simply overloads our brain’s ability to make meaningful distinctions among them.

DeKay points out that there are other reasons for predecisional information distortion as well. One reason is that we like to create a coherent self-image. We want to think that we’re consistent in our thoughts and actions—even though we’re not! If we feel a strong attraction to a particular option, then we need to downplay the virtues of any subsequent options we consider. This way, we maintain the illusion of being consistent in our choices.

There’s little we can do to reduce predecisional information distortion, at least in the lab. Monetary incentives to be as accurate as possible do little to diminish initial biases. Even when the decision involves considerable risk, initial preferences bias final decisions. And it’s not necessarily the case that initial preferences reflect superior options. When the options are equally good, people tend to prefer whichever item they encounter first.

As DeKay points out, our bias for initial preferences isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most real-world decision-making involves chooses among options, none of which is ideal. Furthermore, adding more choices into the mix only bogs down our cognitive processing so that we become worse at making a decision.

In the real world, most of our choices only need to be good enough, not perfect. Whether you’re buying a car, hunting for a house, or searching for a mate, there’s no such thing as the ideal candidate. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and these plusses and minuses simply can’t be compared. In such cases, going with your intuitions will most likely lead you to a decision that’s good enough to meet your needs.

But what about when “good enough” isn’t good enough? You certainly don’t want your doctor to go with her gut and make a “good enough” diagnosis. You want an accurate decision about your medical condition. In one study, DeKay and colleagues looked at doctors making medical diagnoses. They found that the bias toward initial preferences was reduced—but it didn’t go away completely! Doctors are trained to arrive at a diagnosis through a process of elimination, and this might help reduce predecisional information distortion.

DeKay and his colleagues also found one other case in which initial preferences didn’t bias final decisions. In one laboratory task, they asked participations to evaluate a set of items on a number of characteristics. Only after they had done this were they told to choose the best item. Since they didn’t know they’d have to choose among the items, they evaluated each in an unbiased—or maybe we should say “impersonal”—manner.

Going back to our first example of a criminal trial, it’s hard to say how anything we currently know about human decision making can improve the way justice is meted out. We certainly can’t be satisfied with “good enough” decisions of guilt or innocence, and we go through the motions of being impartial in our deliberations. In the end, we simply have to admit that our decision-making abilities are flawed. Sometimes our decisions are good enough, and sometimes they’re not.

Reference

DeKay, M. (2015). Predecisional information distortion and the self-fulfilling prophecy of early preferences in choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 405-411.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).