Stuck in ‘decision quicksand’ – why we get mired in trivial choices

Vancouver Sun, November 14, 2011

Second only to the Bermuda Triangle, lengthy restaurant menus surely claim the most lost souls. You go in with plans for a simple meal, but it’s not long before the question of chicken or fish, salad or french fries, becomes a full-blown existential crisis.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, investigators call this “decision quicksand.”

You presume a choice will be easy but get confounded by other factors and thus spend more time on it than expected. And the more time you spend, the more meaningful the decision feels, causing you to sink deeper into contemplation — whether it’s ordering an entree, choosing a flight or selecting a brand of toothpaste.

“People experiencing a conflict in choice make an implicit inference that the decision must be important, because of this association we all have between importance and difficulty,” explains lead author Aner Sela, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida.

In fact, in an 80-person survey, 91 per cent of people indicated that important choices are generally more difficult and require more time than unimportant ones. Sela remarks that this belief is so strong that people will artificially complicate big decisions that seem too easy, in order to feel they’ve done “due diligence.”

But what he and the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonah Berger sought to test was why, and how, people get mired in trivial choices.

The pair conducted four studies using hundreds of participants and different types of choices, each framed as either important or unimportant. Confounding factors included giving people too many options, setting up too many trade-offs (for example, do you want a toothpaste that brightens but doesn’t clean well, or one that cleans well but leaves your smile looking dull?), and using fonts that were hard to read.

While difficulty had relatively little effect on decisions that already seemed important, they found it led people to spend more time on unimportant decisions.

“Like quicksand,” they write, “the additional effort that people exert to resolve the situation can lead them to get caught up even further.”

It was only after the participants regained their perspective, and realized the decision was inconsequential, that regret sank in.

“Getting sucked in will eventually make people less satisfied with the overall experience, and maybe even less happy with the product,” says Sela. “It can make us feel kind of stupid in hindsight.”

Fortunately, quicksand can be escaped. The study suggests that if people make themselves aware of potentially confounding factors in advance, and take a step back during decision-making, they can avoid getting tripped up.

“Distract yourself. Make a joke to someone. Look at the big picture,” says Sela. “Then come back to the decision and you’ll be surprised how refreshed your outlook will be.”