Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The madness of trivial decisions

I'm sure you find yourself annoyed and paralyzed when you face the huge array of options for a single simple item that are offered on drugstore and supermarket shelves. I walked into a Target store here in Fort Lauderdale yesterday wanting to pick up a simple tube of chapstick and spent five minutes trying to figure out which of the 10 or so different varieties might correspond to the single option offered by the 7-11 Stores of my youth. Expanded options don't offer significant new freedom, they induce indecision paralysis. Jonah Lehrer points to a working paper by Sela and Burger that suggests that I am making a metacognitive error. I..
...confuse the array of options and excess of information with importance, which then leads my brain to conclude that this decision is worth lots of time and attention. Call it the drug store heuristic: A cluttered store shelf leads us to automatically assume that a choice must really matter, even if it doesn’t.
From the Sela and Burger draft, which describes three experiments supporting their points:
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.

If people form inferences about decision importance from their own decision efforts, then not only might increased perceived importance lead people to spend more time deciding, but increased decision time might, in turn, validate and amplify these perceptions of importance, which might further increase deliberation time. Thus, one could imagine a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance. Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation, but may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant. Quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems the more people struggle.

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