Decision quicksand: Why do consumers get mired in trivial choices?

Mar 15, 2012

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).

The authors say this "decision quicksand" results from people assuming that a difficult decision is an important one. Then they increase the amount of time and effort they spend. "For example, instead of realizing that picking a is a trivial decision, we confuse the array of options and excess of information with decision importance, which then leads our brain to conclude that this decision is worth more time and attention," the authors write. Ironically, this is more likely to happen when decisions initially seem unimportant, because people expect them to be easier.

In one experiment, the researchers gave participants a selection of 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 , 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 , 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 we struggle."

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

More information: Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. "Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2012.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Trust your gut: Too much thinking leads to bad choices

Jan 26, 2009

Don't think too much before purchasing that new car or television. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, people who deliberate about decisions make less accurate judgments than people who trust their ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.