Decision Quicksand

Why are unimportant decisions so hard for people to make?

The conventional wisdom is that people don’t make decisions due to the fear of being wrong.  However, in “Decision Quicksand: When Trivial Choices Suck Us In,” research suggests that excessive information and extraneous choices trick our brains into thinking that a decision is more complicated than it really is.  People think important decisions should be hard to make.  If a decision we believe should be simple ends up being harder than we expect, we mistakenly think it must actually be important and therefore take even more time to make the decision.

This vicious cycle turns a simple decision into a complicated one and explains the use of the term ‘decision quicksand’:

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; the worse it seems, the more people struggle.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, the researchers designed a classic two-by-two experiment in which students imagined choosing courses for the following semester and were told them that the courses would (or would not) count towards their major so that it was an important (or unimportant) decision.  The course choices were given in a small, low-contrast font (high-difficulty condition) or a larger, high contrast font (low-difficulty condition). Not surprisingly, the hard-to-read font led to increased deliberation time. 

The group that was given the more difficult situation judged the decision as more important, even if they had initially been told that it was an unimportant decision.  Furthermore, the more time the students spent making the decision, the more they judged the decision as critical.  The authors elaborate:

Though thinking one has spent more time could potentially suggest that one has deliberated sufficiently already, decreasing further deliberation, our results reveal an  opposite pattern. Feeling like one has spent more time on an unimportant decision leads people to invest even more time, causing them to get mired even further.

Consumer marketers should pay special attention to this research.  According to Spire LLC, there are more than 350 types of toothpaste on store shelves.  I doubt there are enough consumer sub-segments to justify this variety.  Instead, the bewildering array of choices confuses consumers, convinces them that the decision is more important than it really is, and promotes decision quicksand.  While I can’t prove it, I suspect this increases the probability that consumers stay with their current brand, rather than taking a chance on a new unfamiliar entry.

Be careful of paralysis by analysis. Quickly eliminating choices will simplify your decisions.   Avoid the quicksand.

6 Responses to Decision Quicksand

  1. Muthu Ranganathan says:

    This is true for the things we are not clear about what we want or why need to buy, but for the things we clearly know the purpose or what we are buying, its easy to make decisions, no complications
    Muthu Ranganathan

  2. Jeff Winter says:

    A group of colleagues just last week had a very interesting discussion along these lines, though a bit tangential. This video captures the “Paradox of Choice” quite nicely. Net-net: conventional wisdom posits that more choice > more freedom > more happiness > better performance. Reality: more choice > confusion / frustration > less happiness / poorer performance (e.g. delayed decision-making).


  3. George John says:

    Cool article on consumer decisionmaking and paralysis in the face of too many choices:

  4. Dawn Philips says:

    The trick is to make decisions with your thought process starting from the “Why”. Always think about the impact of your decisions. If it is minor (or correctable given more information) then don’t spend a whole bunch of time on it. If not, then analyse away.

    TIP: Most decisions are correctable afterward. Very few decisions we make commit us irrevocably.

  5. Harriet Meth says:

    It is ironic that human brains don’t like to deal with too many choices. It dovetails with Miller’s Law that we can only process seven pieces of information or “chunks” in our working memory. Actually that number has now been whittled down to three to four.

    Final thought: all of this means that too many marketing messages – whether B-C or B-B – will create confusion if not inertia in your customer base. Are you listening tech marketers:-).

  6. Arshad Sherif, M.A., M.Ed. says:

    There is a good explanation for why people spend so much time even on unimportant decisions: they want to get it right. And they take pride in getting it right, regardless of how important or unimportant the decision. People take pride in their decisions and they want to get it right. We are diminished when we get it wrong. Getting it wrong, even when getting it right doesn’t matter much, means that we did not strive for perfection. Perfection is a worthy goal in and of itself. The importance of the decision is not the issue. We cannot be perfect with the big stuff if we are imperfect with the small stuff.

    And sweating the small stuff does not hurt our well-being. Arriving at wrong decisions, even with things that may seem trivial, is far more detrimental in the long run.

    There is an explanation for why people were taking time “to seek out fresh sources of information” for the “unimportant-but-challenging decisions.” We want to learn something new from every decision. When we spend time making a decision, it is not all about that particular decision. It is about learning something new from the facts surrounding every decision that we make.

    The two solutions that the authors propose will not work. Setting artificial time limits on decision-making will not work because it is a time limit of our own making and there is no penalty for going beyond it. Only real time limits imposed on us from the outside can work. (An example would be a time limit imposed by your boss or a school bell.)

    Nor would it work to take a “step back” to achieve a “global focus.” We cannot go outside ourselves. It sounds appealing theoretically, but suspending our normal mental functioning and analyzing our own thought processes is a mighty difficult thing to accomplish.

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