We make several thousand decisions day by day - that's quite a lot if you think about it. Most of these decisions happen without any significant cognitive effort, simply automatically. But how about those decisions that we can actively shape? Might there be a fast and easy approach how to make easy decisions out of a sheer endless amount of options?
[Reading time: appr. 10min]
The Dilemma of easy decisions
The paradox of our time in our hemisphere is the multitude of alternatives in all areas of life. On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic to have so many possibilities in all areas of life and to be able to constantly choose between different alternatives. I have more than 20 hairdressing shops within a 10 minute walk radius. Unfortunately, all of them are closed at the moment, but that’s a different topic.
On the other hand, considering a large number of alternatives leads to more complex decision-making that drives us away from easy decisions.
Some of you may be familiar with Iyengar and Lepper's ~20-year-old experiment with jams.
They invited participants to try and buy different kinds of jam. In the experiment the number of strawberry flavors offered went up from 6 to 24, thus there were two situations where decisions had to be made:
The experiment showed that the number of people willing to try increased as the number of alternatives went up from 6 to 24. At the same time, however, as the number of alternatives increased to 24, the willingness to buy decreased.
The Choice Overload Paradox was on everyone's mind again.
The results of the experiment were exciting and the study attracted lots of attention, as the common belief in many fields had been this: The addition of decision alternatives cannot put a decision-maker in a worse position than before. Was this strong belief now all of a sudden worth nothing?
As is often the case with scientific findings, they are too quickly generalized. Suddenly everything was jam.
Of course, not everything is jam. Instead, here as with all more complex contexts, it depends on...
Science does not yet have a conclusive answer to this question. One study shows support for the Choice Overload Paradox, another one does not support it.
In short: It could be like this, but it could also be different.
Choice Overload in our head
Our brain, no matter how much IQ it’s equipped with in an individual case, usually uses two available systems when making decisions. Both systems are not to be understood as independent units, but it makes sense to think of them exactly as such.
System 1: The emotional system
This system of the brain is effortlessly able and non-stop busy with emotional evaluation. However, its basic mission is more like that of a quick decision maker. When eleven little kittens turn out to be saber-toothed tigers, it’s not a matter of judging which fur looks the most beautiful, but rather of preparing a quick and efficient escape. Deciding on two out of eleven kittens as the next pet to take home, presents the emotional system with a much more difficult task. Nevertheless it will come up with a fast answer, Choice Overload is not an issue and easy decisions are possible. Wouldn’t there be the little, much more intelligent little brother…
System 2: The cognitive system
The more information and data available, the more can be analyzed and compared. However, this takes up a lot of cognitive energy and time. On a cognitive level, the choice overload is primarily a capacity and time problem. We are not efficient decision makers when there are too many alternatives. Easy decisions are out of reach as we can’t analyze and compare as fast as new opportunities and alternatives pop up in front of us. AI, by the way, can do make easy decisions despite a large amount of data – its processing capacities are increasing for decades and System 1 does not play a role at all, except for what is in the mind of the programmer.
My view of Choice Overload
When I am faced with a medium to difficult decision, it helps me enormously to keep the number of alternatives low in order to be able to make easy decisions and decide more efficiently. On the other hand, if I'm up for strawberry jam for breakfast, Choice Overload is not an issue for me, even if there are 20 alternative varieties and four brands of strawberries in the shelf.
In the vast majority of cases I differentiate between four options. Everything beyond four is too complex for me. The four options even get a label:
The one describes the first answer that comes to my mind when I am asked to decide, no matter how stupid it may be.
The another one is the most obvious alternative if I decide against The one, which for me is usually a cognitive answer.
Something completely different is what comes to my mind as soon as I hide the first two options. This can be a slightly different or very different solution.
Nothing is the decision not to decide. That means to do nothing.
To illustrate this, a little example from myself. A few weeks ago I was faced with the decision how to design the cookie field on my website. With a relaxed surfing experience in mind, I find cookie fields quite annoying. So for me there were four alternatives:
Since I only had four alternatives and could rule out doing nothing immediately, I only had to choose between three options.
The answer from system 1 was very clear: option 3 it was. About 20 minutes and a few checks later, system 2 also agreed. There seems to be no rules against making an offer in cookie texts - I just haven't seen one on the internet so far. Yet I think that there are certaintly a couple of much cooler looking Cookie options than my simple text field...
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
By the way: In the next article I talk about the ability of abilities when it comes to decisions that plays a role in nearly all situsations...