In a new study, researchers Aner Sela and Jonah Berger ask “Why do people get mired in seemingly trivial decisions? Why do we agonize over what toothbrush to buy, struggle with what sandwich to pick, and labor over which shade of white to paint the kitchen?”
They contend that if a decision feels difficult we assume it is also important and consequently increase the time and energy we spend trying to reach the best decision. “For example,” they write, “instead of realizing that picking a toothbrush is a trivial decision, we confuse the array of options and excess of information with decision importance, which then leads our brain to conclude that this decision is worth more time and attention.”
Though they may not be as consequential, unimportant decisions are just as often plagued by incidental factors that make them difficult (e.g., trade-offs, disfluency, or information overload). Metacognitive inference can make unexpectedly difficult decisions seem more important, which, in turn, increases deliberation time. Ironically, this process is more likely to occur for unimportant decisions because people expect them to be easier. Although people may recognize that they are dwelling on a trivial issue, they nevertheless feel during the decision experience that it is important to get the decision right.
Taken together, these studies show not only that unexpected difficulty in decision making can lead people to spend more time but also that, like quicksand, the additional effort that people exert to resolve the situation can lead them to get caught up even further.
How can you mitigate this frustrating phenomenon?
…one potential strategy may be to encourage adherence to decision rules. For example, before even considering the options, people might set out a specific amount of time they are willing to spend, based on the importance of the decision (e.g., “I will place my order in 5 minutes, no matter what”). Alternatively, people might consider delegating the choice to others. While these strategies may not be practical when deciding about consequential issues, for less consequential choices they might help reduce the tendency to fall into decision quicksand without compromising decision quality. Another approach might be to step back from the decision in an attempt to maintain a more global focus. While submerging oneself in the details of a decision is sometimes necessary, it may cause people to lose sight of the big picture. Consequently, taking brief breaks in the course of draining decisions might be useful. Even minor interruptions, short breaks, or momentary task switching can change information processing from a local, bottom-up focus to a top-down, goal-directed mode. This should help people to regain their perspective about what is important and what is not, allocate their time and processing resources accordingly, and move on with their decisions.