Søk i bloggen

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It is difficult to make choices

We all make hundreds of choices every day, ranging from the minor and trivial, to the life-changing and major decisions.
Most of us consider ourselves rational beings, and try to weigh our choices against one another to figure out what to do.

Unfortunately, it is quite easy for the brain to be manipulated into making a choice we otherwise would not have made.
In addition, for the choices where we do want to make them, it is possible to have a choice be much harder than it need be.

For instance, having many options can often be a bad thing because it makes choosing between them so much harder.

Allow me to make an example, starting with the trivial:

You are at the store for your shopping. On the way out, you come across the freezer and think 'Hey, some ice cream would be delicious in this sweltering heat.' This store prides itself in its ice cream, and has over a hundred different flavors for you to choose from. You stand there wondering and pondering which flavor to go for, and after a couple of minutes you give up trying to decide and go buy an apple instead.

You are at another store for your shopping. This time, the store has only three flavors. Easily, you grab a cone of chocolate ice cream and pay and go out and enjoy your ice.

How many of you have faced this scenario? It is very common. Your brain is incapable of comparing all hundred flavors of ice against one another, especially since you likely have only tasted a tenth of them, and just draws a blank when you ask it to decide which one to go for.


It need not be the trivial choices that get this problem. Say you want to choose an insurance provider for your health. If there are hundreds of different options of your plans and coverages and prices you can sit for hours trying to decide which one to take.

The flipside is, that more choices do give you a better fit when you have made the choice in the end. There should not be much denying that. However, you don't necessarily feel better about your choice then. With many options, you can never be sure that you would not have liked option K better than option Q, or maybe you should´ve gone for Option b2 instead of C94. If your only choices were the broad A, B and C, then while you might be better off with a choice midway between B and C, you will feel better about the choice itself.



In addition, the illusion of choice can often lead to strange outcomes. Dan Ariely uses this example:
A journal offered the following subscriptions for sale:
a) $69.99 web-only (with back archives) subscription.
b) $99.99 print-only subscription. (without back archives)
c) $99.99 print and web subscription. (print and back archives)

The salespeople figured that since the web version was essentially free, once you had bought the print version you were entitled to the same archives on the web. Sounds sensible enough. But nobody in their right mind would choose option B, since option C was superior in every way. They noticed that, and removed option B from their subscription forms.

Sales dropped quite considerably, even if they only removed the item that nobody bought. Why is that?
Well, since option C is so obviously superior to option B, it creates a very strong incentive to buy option C, because it is obviously a good deal! When all three options were there, people compared C to B when determining whether or not to subscribe. And boy does that subscription look good then!
When option B was removed, C was compared to A and then none of them have the obvious 'Good deal!' quality over it.


For more on the subject, I recommend the following two TED talks:
Dan Ariely asks: Are we in control of our own decisions?
Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice

2 comments:

  1. Ah, I saw an amazing documentary on how to manipulate people's choices (and the subject of free will was implicit) on NRK2 once. Can't remember the name. It was during the last few 6 months...

    I'll let you know if I find out what it was. It was in Swedish.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it was the documentary called "Vår aktive hjerne" ("Our active brain") which was actually on last night as well, but then about body language :p

    http://www.nrk.no/tv/?dato=27.05.2009

    ReplyDelete