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Before You Decide on One Option, You Have to Find a Set of Options

Research explores how people generate that list of options.

Key points

  • The set of options people choose from is called the consideration set.
  • Choices require constructing a consideration set.
  • People have to filter those options for ones that fit the particular situation.
iStock image by Trots1905 licensed to Art Markman
Source: iStock image by Trots1905 licensed to Art Markman

There are two distinct kinds of choice situations. One of them happens when there is a set of options, and you have to choose the one you’d like. For example, when you go to the grocery store to buy tomato sauce, you have to pick one of the brands in stock (or leave the store). In other situations, though, even before you can decide on an option, you have to generate a list of options to consider. Decision scientists call that collection of possibilities the consideration set.

What factors drive the options that end up in your consideration set, and how does that process differ from choosing the best option for the situation you’re in right now? This question was explored in a paper by Adam Morris, Jonathan Phillips, Karen Huang, and Fiery Cushman published in 2021 in Psychological Science.

These researchers argue that there are two ways to think about the value that an option has. When you are selecting among things with which you have experience, you know how much you like those items in general. But, then there are often specific circumstances that can change how appropriate an option is for that situation.

As an example, one situation that the authors use in their studies involves meals. Presumably, there are foods you generally like to eat. But, suppose that you are cooking for a friend who has some food allergies. You might have to pick foods that aren’t your favorites but are acceptable to your friend.

The authors argue that you generate the consideration set based on the items you generally like the best, but then you select the member of the consideration set that best fits the situation. The two different kinds of values play different roles in the choice process.

The paper presents several studies that test this proposal.

The first set of studies used general preferences for foods. The authors gave people a scenario like the one I just described in which they have to cook a meal for a friend with allergies. They asked people to decide what food to cook and then asked them to think back on the choice they made and list the foods they considered making. They rated each of the foods both for how much they liked the foods in general as well as how appropriate the foods were for the situation. In general, the foods people considered were all ones they like, but they were good at choosing a situation-appropriate food.

In another set of studies, participants were given a task in which they were given the 12 months of the year and were taught that each month was associated with a different reward with some months getting higher rewards than others. After this practice phase, participants were given a short period of time (25 seconds) to answer and select the month whose third letter comes earliest in the alphabet. This amount of time was not enough to go through all 12 months, so participants need to pick a subset of months to try. Consistent with the first set of studies, participants tended to start with the months that had the highest reward values from the previous task. Their consideration set was based on general value, but they did a good job of selecting the month that fit the specific question being asked.

As one final demonstration, participants in another study were asked to state the meal they least wanted someone to make them for dinner. As before, they listed all of the items they considered as well as their final answer and rated them for how much they generally liked the foods. They found that participants frequently considered foods they like quite a bit when doing this task. Another group was asked to state the meal they would most like someone else to make. In this situation, participants rarely said that they considered meals they dislike. This finding suggests that even when participants have to generate a food they really dislike, they often start by thinking about foods they like.

This set of studies suggests that people have a sensible mechanism for generating lists of options to consider. They store their general preferences for items based on their experience with them. Then, when a new situation calls for a choice among items from that category, they are biased to retrieve their favorites. The list that is generated is then evaluated against specific constraints for that situation.

One reason why this mechanism is interesting: It may explain why people have trouble when making significant changes in a behavior they perform frequently like eating. Soon after making the change, you are still going to be reminded of foods you like, many of which you may not be able to eat anymore based on your new diet. As a result, you are going to think about things you like that you cannot have, which can lead you to be dissatisfied with the foods you are actually able to eat. Over time, of course, your general preferences will shift, and this regret about your new diet will fade.

References

Morris, A., Phillips, J., Huang, K., & Cushman, F. (2021). Generating options and choosing between them depend on distinct forms of value representation. Psychological Science, 32(11), 1731-1746.

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