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Why do people sometimes get stuck in seemingly minor choices?

We sweat the small stuff.

“We suggest that metacognitive inference contributes to a process we name “decision quicksand,” whereby people get sucked into spending more time on unimportant decisions. Our central premise is that people use the subjective difficulty experienced while making a decision as a cue to how much further time and effort to spend. More important decisions are often more difficult because they involve higher stakes that call for laborious scrutiny. As a result, people tend to expect decisions regarding significant matters to be difficult and decisions regarding trivial matters to be easy. Consequently, if a decision feels unexpectedly difficult, due to even incidental reasons, we propose that people may draw the reverse inference that it is also important and deserving of more attention. This, in turn, should increase the amount of time people spend choosing.”

An interesting article in psychology today adds to this:

The satisficer/maximizer split seems relevant here. As Barry Schwartz explains in his fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, there are two types of decision makers. Satisficers (yes, “satisficers” is a word) make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.

Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. They find the research process exhausting, yet can’t let themselves settle for anything but the best.

* * *

Abstract:

Consumers often get unnecessarily mired in trivial decisions. Four studies support a metacognitive account for this painful phenomenon. Our central premise is that people use subjective experiences of difficulty while making a decision as a cue to how much further time and effort to spend. People generally associate important decisions with difficulty. Consequently, if a decision feels unexpectedly difficult, due to even incidental reasons, people may draw the reverse inference that it is also important, and consequently increase the amount of time and effort they expend. Ironically, this process is particularly likely for decisions that initially seemed unimportant because people expect them to be easier (whereas important decisions are expected to be difficult to begin with). Our studies not only demonstrate that unexpected difficulty causes people to get caught-up in unimportant decisions, but also to voluntarily seek more options, which can increase decision difficulty even further.

Source: “Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In,” Aner Sela and Jonah Berger, Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming)

(Via Wall Street Journal)

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