Decision Quicksand

March 20, 2011

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.