One of the problems with writing a book on decision-making is that people assume I’m not terrible at making decisions. As a result, they act surprised when it takes me 10 minutes to pick a sandwich or when I confess that I still get mild panic attacks when choosing floss at the drugstore. They believe that, just because I wrote about the prefrontal cortex, I’m somehow better able to wield mine. But that’s not necessarily the case: there’s an indefatigable gap between theory and life. While it’s true that I’m no longer quite so indecisive — I don’t spend 30 minutes debating breakfast cereals in the supermarket anymore — I still suffer from the occasional bout of “paralysis-by-analysis.” If you see a guy looking distraught while comparing the active ingredients of various toothpastes, look again. That might be me.
In essence, my basic decision-making flaw is that I tend to treat easy consumer decisions (toothpaste, floss, shampoo, laundry detergent, etc.) as if they were really difficult. Although I know that every floss will work well enough, I still can’t help but contemplate the pros and cons of waxed versus unwaxed, spearmint versus wintermint. It’s an embarrassing waste of time, and yet it happens to me all the time.
Why do I do this? Why do I squander so much mental energy on the mundane purchases of everyday life? I think I’ve found a good answer. I recently stumbled upon a working paper, “Decision Quicksand: When Trivial Choices Suck Us In,” by Aner Sela (University of Florida) and Jonah Berger (Penn). Their hypothesis is that my wasted deliberation in the drugstore is a metacognitive mistake. Instead of realizing that picking a floss is an easy decision, 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. (After all, why else would there be so many alternatives?) Here are the scientists:
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.
To demonstrate their point, Sela and Berger conducted a number of clever experiments. In one test, they gave people a selection of airline flight options. One group was given these options in a small, low-contrast font (high-difficulty condition) while a second group was given the same options in a larger, high contrast font (low-difficulty condition). Not surprisingly, the hard-to-read font led to increased deliberation time, as people were forced to decipher their alternatives. What was more interesting is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance: The flight options now seemed like a weighty decision with profound consequences. (This effect was especially pronounced when people were led to believe that the choice of flights was actually unimportant.)
This leads Sela and Berger to elaborate on their quicksand metaphor:
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.
The problem, of course, is that the modern marketplace is a conspiracy to confuse, to trick the mind into believing that our most banal choices are actually extremely significant. Companies spend a fortune trying to convince us that only their toothpaste will clean our teeth, or that only their detergent will remove the stains from our clothes, or that every other cereal tastes like cardboard. And then there is the surreal abundance of the store shelf. Do we really need 13 different varieties of Cheerios? Why does the average drug store contain 55 floss alternatives and more than 350 kinds of toothpaste? While all these products are designed to cater to particular consumer niches, they end up duping the brain into believing that picking a floss is a high-stakes game, since it’s so damn hard. And so we get mired in decision-making quicksand.
The good news is that some companies are starting to realize this is a marketing mistake, that people get turned off by the illusion of difficulty. Choosing oral hygiene products shouldn’t feel like the SAT. Here’s Ellen Byron, writing last week in the WSJ:
Some manufacturers are putting the brakes on new-product introductions. Last year, 69 new toothpastes hit store shelves, down from 102 in 2007, according to market-research firm Mintel International Group. Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Crest, says it has “significantly” reduced the number of oral-care products it makes world wide in the past two years. “We’ve come to realize that fewer is better,” says Matt Doyle, director of global oral-care research and development at P&G.
Stores are trying to simplify, too. Last month, 352 distinct types or sizes of toothpaste were sold at retail, down from 412 in March 2008, according to Spire LLC, which tracks shopping data from more than 30 million U.S. households.
Supervalu Inc., the supermarket giant, has capped the number of package sizes and flavor versions in its stores. “The palate might not be able to discern that sixth variant of mint,” says John Mullaney, Supervalu’s director of personal care.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue my quest for self-improvement, reminding myself to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer. If I keep on telling myself that my selection of floss doesn’t really matter — that the importance of the decision is a cognitive illusion — then I’m bound to one day realize it’s true. I can finally spend my time worrying about more important things, like what to eat for lunch.