The ability to make a choice, as opposed to being told what to do, or given only a single option, has been shown to have positive effects (Deci and Ryan 1985). People are more internally motivated and perform better on tasks they have chosen, and they also are more satisfied with their choices and feel more in control. However as decisions become more difficult for decision makers, these benefits begin to disappear. When people face difficult decisions, they experience more anxiety, anticipate potential regret, and are more likely to postpone the decision, relegate it to another person, or avoid making it altogether (Schwartz 2004). In addition after making a difficult decision people are likely to be dissatisfied, and feel less confident that the right choice was made. These phenomena have obvious ethical implications for a society in which science and technology are often valued because of their ability to enhance choices.
A number of factors increase the difficulty of a decision. Situations that require decision makers to contrast unattractive options, make large tradeoffs, or compare large numbers of items make decisions difficult, as do those where accountability to others or a lack of information lead to anticipated regret or fear of blame. Increasing the number of options available increases the number of tradeoffs that must be made between desirable attributes of those options. This increases the effort required of the decision maker and induces more severe psychological consequences, which leads decision makers to rely on less of the available information, and to use simplified decision rules, which in turn make mistakes more likely. This result has been found to hold true not only for consumer purchasing decisions, but also for selecting retirement and health insurance plans, and choosing medical treatments (both by patients and doctors) (Schwartz 2004).
In addition to changes in the decision process, researchers have demonstrated effects on decision outcomes. More specifically when the choice involves potential tasks or activities, more options can lead to the decision maker feeling less motivated and performing more poorly on the chosen task. For example, researchers offered students either thirty topic options for an extra credit essay or six options, and found that when students had thirty options to choose from, fewer students chose to write an essay, and the quality of the essays written was worse.
Importantly experts do not appear to be immune to the effects of decision difficulty (Shanteau, Weiss, Thomas, and Pounds 2003). Whereas experts are often able to consider more of the available information, the only experts who appear uniquely equipped to make decisions are those in fields such as physics and mathematics where rules exist for reaching solutions, relative levels of certainty exist, and there are opportunities to learn from feedback. Experts in fields where there are not explicit rules or equations for solving problems (for example, clinical psychologists, legislators, advertising executives) have been found to use simplified decision rules and be affected by the psychological effects of tradeoffs. However the accountability that comes with being an expert has been shown, in many situations, to increase a decision maker's search effort and the complexity of decision strategies (Lerner and Tetlock 2003).
Unfortunately experts and novices alike are commonly unaware of the influences that decision difficulty has on their behavior. People often believe they want more choice options, yet those options make them less happy, and they often want to give such options away once they have them (Schwartz 2004). For example, 65 percent of healthy people say that they would want to choose their own medical treatment if they were to get cancer, whereas among people with cancer only 12 percent want to choose their own treatment. When not actually facing it, people do not realize the difficulty of the decision and the emotional consequences they will face when they have to bear the responsibility of deciding. Likewise as experts make decisions, particularly those concerning outcomes for other individuals, they need to take into consideration both their own cognitive abilities and limitations—in particular, the effects of decision difficulty that they might not be aware of—as well as the abilities and limitations of the individuals who will be affected. For example, legislators deciding not to make changes to an existing program may indicate decision aversion in response to the difficulty that comes from accountability; similarly creating a program that gives more options to the affected citizens (such as giving workers options for investing social security savings) may result from the desire to shift the responsibility of making wise choices to the other party. Whereas the people affected might even think they want the options, if the options leave them with difficult decisions that are undesirable, providing the choice might prove to be a disservice.
ELIZABETH J. MULLIGAN
ERIC D. CLAUS
Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum Press.
Lerner, Jennifer S., and Philip E. Tetlock. (2003). "Bridging Individual, Interpersonal, and Institutional Approaches to Judgment and Decision Making: The Impact of Accountability on Cognitive Bias." In Emerging Perspectives on Judgment and Decision Research, ed. Sandra L. Schneider and James Shanteau. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Schwartz, Barry. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco. Provides a very thorough, yet accessible, account of research findings on decision making that illuminates the problems that arise when decision makers encounter increasing numbers of options and/or lack information needed to make a decision.
Shanteau, James; David J. Weiss; Rickey P. Thomas; and Julia Pounds. (2003). "How Can You Tell If Someone Is an Expert? Performance-Based Assessment of Expertise." In Emerging Perspectives on Judgment and Decision Research, ed. Sandra L. Schneider and James Shanteau. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.