March 15, 2012
Decision Quicksand: Why Do Consumers Get Mired In Trivial Choices?
Does it matter which toothbrush or breakfast cereal you buy? A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research explains why consumers get stuck in store aisles contemplating the dizzying array of options.
"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?" ask authors Aner Sela (University of Florida) and Jonah Berger (University of Pennsylvania).
In one experiment, the researchers gave participants a selection of airline flight options. One group chose their options in small, low-contrast font (difficult condition), while another group chose the same options in a larger, high-contrast font (easy condition). Not surprisingly, the hard-to-read font led to increased deliberation time because people were forced to decipher their options. "What was more interesting is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance: The flight options now seemed like a weighty decision," the authors write. "Moreover, this effect was strongest when people were initially led to believe that the choice of flights was actually unimportant!"
The authors also found that unexpected difficulty caused people to voluntarily seek more options, which increased decision difficulty even more.
"Our findings suggest that people sometimes fall into a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance," the authors write. "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. Decision quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems, the more we struggle."
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