Choice in Psychology

views updated

Choice in Psychology


Since the mid-twentieth century the term choice has been operationally defined in a variety of different ways in psychology. Consequently, the study of choice in psychology reflects this variability. Choice has often been studied as the outcome of a decision-making process. Economic theories of rational choice assume both that the decisions individuals make will determine their behavior and that decisions will be made based on a general set of rational laws. In particular, it is assumed that (1) the decision maker is able to compare all of the alternatives; (2) all comparisons will be consistent (i.e., if A is preferred to B, and B to C, C may not be preferred to A ), and (3) the decision maker will engage in utility maximization; that is, will always choose the most preferred option to achieve desired ends.

Aware of the reality that the decisions people make do not always conform to conventional economic assumptions of rational choice, the psychologist Herbert Simon proposed the notion of bounded rationality. That is, rational choice is limited by the cognitive capability of the individual and the complexity of the environment in which a decision is made. Simon proposed that agents will, therefore, engage in satisficing, or accept a choice that is good enough but not necessarily perfect. Simons assertions pointed to a notable difference between economic and psychological views of rationality. Namely, traditional economic theories assume that the world is perceived as it really is and that there are no limits on the decision makers cognitive capabilities. Consequently, economics takes a substantive view of rationality. That is, choices can be predicted based entirely on knowledge about the real world because decision makers always reach a decision that is objectively optimal. In contrast, a strength of the psychological view of rationality is that it is assumed that the decision maker has limited knowledge and cognitive capacity and does not necessarily perceive the world the way it really is. Consequently, psychological theories focus on the process by which decisions are made.

Building on Simons contributions, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman originated prospect theory to explain irrational human economic choices. In empirical studies on framing, Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated systematic reversals of preference when the same problem is presented in different ways. For example, when decisions are framed in terms of a potential gain, individuals are more likely to engage in risk aversion. Whereas when decisions are framed in terms of a loss, individuals will be more likely to choose the risky option. Tversky and Kahneman documented a number of judgment heuristics and biases that influence the way people assess probabilities under uncertain conditions and thus influence the decisions they make. Notable heuristics and biases include the availability heuristic, base-rate fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, conjunction fallacy, clustering illusion, and representativeness heuristic.

Psychologists have also studied choice as an experience that has consequences for an individuals sense of personal control, motivation, and self-regulation. According to Edward Deci and other theorists, it is theorized that autonomy and competence are fundamental human needs that underlie intrinsic motivation, the drive to engage in a task for its own sake. Social contexts that satisfy these needs will enhance intrinsic motivation and related outcomes. Consequently, research on the topic has suggested that the provision of choice may be one contextual factor linked to adaptive motivational and achievement outcomes. Even the perception of choice, as opposed to true choices, has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on motivation-related constructs.

However, late-twentieth-century research has suggested that choice is not ubiquitously beneficial. In particular, although Caucasian Americans seem to benefit from making personal choices, individuals from Asian cultures seem to benefit more when choices are made by significant others. Further, proponents of self-regulatory perspectives of choice have shown that choice may actually have detrimental effects to the extent that making a choice is effortful, resulting in decreased energy needed for future tasks. In fact, research has shown that having fewer choices is more motivating than having an extensive, and potentially overwhelming, array of choices. Potential explanations for contradictory findings have been offered. In particular, the nature of the choice experience may be influential moderator of the effect.

SEE ALSO Choice in Economics; Decision-making; Rational Choice Theory; Rationality


Iyengar, Sheena S., and Mark Lepper. 2002. Choice and Its Consequences: On the Costs and Benefits of Self-Determination. In Self and Motivation: Emerging Psychological Perspectives. Eds. Abraham Tesser, Diederik A. Stapel, and Joanne V. Wood, 71-96. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Simon, Herbert A. [1982] 1997. Models of Bounded Rationality. Vols. 1-3. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1987. Rationality in Psychology and Economics. In Rational Choice: The Contrast between Economics and Psychology. Eds. Robin M. Hogarth and Melvin W. Reder, 25-40. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. 1974. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science 185 (4157): 1124-1131.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. 1981. The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice. Science 211 (4481): 453-458.

Erika A. Patall