Why Are You Often Disappointed With Choices?

Errors in evaluation of items can lead to choice disappointment.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

CC0 Vonsky87 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: CC0 Vonsky87 via Wikimedia Commons

Disappointment with a choice is a common experience.  You go to the bookstore and browse only to be let down by the novel you selected.  The dish you selected from the menu of a new restaurant is good, but not as good as you hoped. 

Is there a reason why you might be systematically disappointed with the choices you make?

You might think that somehow you are biased in the choices you make in a way that creates this disappointment.  An interesting paper by Jordan Tong, Daniel Feiler, and Anastasia Ivantsova in the February 2018 issue of Psychological Science suggests that this disappointment may arise even without systematic bias

The idea is fairly simple.  Suppose people make perfect choices.  That is, at any given moment, when faced with a set of options, they are able to pick the one that they think is best.

Now, assume that people are not perfect at assessing how good something is.  They have a rough idea, but sometimes they estimate that something is a little better than it is, and sometimes they estimate that something is a little worse than it is.  Assume that this error is not biased either so that on average people are correct in their judgments.

That means that on any given choice occasion, someone might evaluate some of the options as being slightly better than they really are and other options as slightly worse than they really are.  Because they always choose the option they think is best, they are more likely to pick an option that has been mistakenly judged as better than it really is than to pick an option that is judged as worse than it really is.  So, there is more chance that after experiencing the option for real they will be disappointed by it than that they will be pleasantly surprised by it.

The researchers point out that this should happen most often when the items being evaluated are already fairly close in value so that the error in estimates of preference has a bigger effect than the actual differences in the goodness of the options.

As one test of this possibility, participants were shown pictures and descriptions of actual houses that had recently sold nearby.  In one condition, participants judged the value of houses without making a choice about them.  They were given feedback about their judgments to help them get a sense of the actual prices in the area.  On average, their judgments were pretty accurate and not significantly different from the true values.

In another condition, participants first saw a set of six houses and selected the one they thought was most expensive.  Then, they estimated the price of the house they chose.  Once again, they got feedback after each estimate.  In this case, though, participants consistently overestimated the price. 

Analyses of the choices sets showed that the overestimates of the price were largest when the set of houses being judged were most similar in value.  This finding is consistent with the idea that big errors in judgments have the strongest impact when the items in the choice set are close together in value.

Another study demonstrated that the same effect occurs when people judge the value of items first and then choose.  So, there isn’t something special about making a choice that leads people to overestimate the value of an object.

So, how can you help to counteract this source of choice disappointment?

One possibility is to bring along someone else when making important choices.  Have them also give you their judgments about the goodness of the options.  Chances are, any errors the two of you make will often be in different directions, so the other person’s judgments can provide a check on your own preferences.

Another possibility is to give yourself several different chances to evaluate the options before starting to commit to a decision.  That can be hard, but if you can judge the set of options a second time, you may notice different factors that may help to counteract any errors you made the first time.

Finally, when you do experience disappointment in a choice, it is useful to remember that this is nearly an inevitable outcome of making decisions because there will always be some uncertainty about how to evaluate things.  Don’t beat yourself up for making a decision that turns out less well than you had hoped.

References

Tong, J., Feiler, D., & Ivantsova, A. (2018). Good choice, bad judgment: How choice under uncertainty generates overoptimism. Psychological Science, 29(2), 254-265.