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If decisiveness is a virtue, can we learn to make decisions better?
Maybe, according to a recent paper by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and Aner Sela, a marketing professor at the University of Florida. The challenge, the two researchers say, is to avoid "decision quicksand", a state of mind that tricks people into believing trivial decisions – like which brand of dental floss to buy, or what shade of white to paint the kitchen are important and therefore worth extended time and deliberation. The more important a decision is perceived, the more likely a person is to sink into a morass of details, trade-offs, attributes and cost comparisons, hoping to find the "right" answer.
"While we might expect to spend lots of time on important decisions – like which college to go to or what city to live in, we have found that people actually spend more time than they should on unimportant decisions because they get sucked in," notes Berger. He and Sela discuss that conclusion – drawn from a series of experiments – in a paper titled Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In.
Unlike "analysis paralysis" a term used to describe a standstill during the decision-making process, decision quicksand refers to a spiralling tunnel of exertion and inference-making that overcomplicates what should be a simple process. "We often view decisions like math problems –like there's got to be a right or wrong answer," says Berger. "That is not true with most things. The differences are manufactured. They don't matter as much as we think they do. It is better to choose a [brand of] toothpaste and move on." Worst of all, adds Berger, is that people agonise over decisions that ultimately make them unhappy because they wasted so much time coming to a conclusion.
The basic premise of the paper is that the subjective difficulty experienced while making a decision will dictate how much more time and effort people feel is necessary to arrive at an answer. In other words, if a trivial decision is clouded by a sea of options, unexpected complications, trade-off conflicts or excess time invested, it is likely to be perceived as difficult and therefore important, even though the choice has not actually become more vital to the person's overall wellbeing.
To illustrate perceived importance as a "green light" to invest time, the researchers asked 264 online respondents to choose between two airline flights. Everyone was instructed to pick the best flight possible, but one group was told that the choice was important (that it was a critical meeting, and the journey was expected to be long and difficult) while the other group was told that the choice was unimportant (that the journey would be short, and the meeting was not critical to any outcome).
Some respondents were given a description of the options in a large, easy-to-read font, while others had to decipher a small, hard-to-read font. It took people making the "important" decision about the same amount of time to make a choice, no matter how clearly printed the directions were. But those faced with the "unimportant decision" and the unexpected complication of unclearly printed directions took longer to make a choice than any of the other groups.
In another experiment, two groups – totalling 261 student subjects – were instructed to select a college course for the following semester. One group of students was told that the choice was very important because it related to their major. The other group was told the opposite. The researchers also manipulated how much time participants believed had elapsed by speeding up the clock. It took those who had the less crucial task but who perceived that they had spent a significant amount of time in the decision-making process the longest to arrive at a final choice.
According to Berger, the results of the experiments have value both to the marketing industry and to ordinary people concerned with improving their time management. "Marketers don't want to frustrate consumers or make them dissatisfied with a product or a store," he notes. "Some are offering fewer options, collecting [data about consumers'] preferences and tailoring their products to those preferences."
For example, Amazon asks new buyers to complete a profile of likes and dislikes. The company also keeps track of subsequent purchases. Using what is known as a "choice architecture", Amazon targets its sales promotions to those preferences rather than bombarding the consumer with every special offer in the cyber store, Berger says.
The research also has implications for those who want to develop the superior time management skills and decisiveness that are generally viewed as essential for someone on a leadership track. "Culturally, we have this notion that decisiveness is power, particularly for politicians, even if a more deliberative approach is better," Berger points out. Within the complex process of decision-making, he notes, there are two kinds of people: "Maximisers" are always on the lookout for the best option, while "satisficers" are inclined to settle for "good enough". "In some ways, it's good to be a maximiser," he says. "But with regard to the endless trivial decisions that fill our days and weeks, it's probably healthier to be satisfied with good enough."