People Spend Too Much Time On Decisions with Equally Satisfying Outcomes
The pitfalls of analysis paralysis
I read a useful paper titled “Irrational time allocation in decision-making.”
At the start of the study, participants viewed images of different snack foods and indicated how much they would be willing to pay for each item.
Next, participants looked at images that contained pairs of different foods (e.g. the screen would display a Kit Kat and a Mars Bar). They had to choose which item they preferred to eat at the end of the study.
Researchers found that people spent longer choosing between options that were roughly equal in value than between options in which there was a large value disparity.
“Value” here means how much participants said they would be willing to pay for each item at the start of the study.
When shown a disfavored food alongside a favored food, people chose fast. When shown a favored food alongside another favored food, people took a while. But this is irrational (at least in the economic sense).
When making decisions, we spend too much time choosing between options with roughly equal utility.
This idea is satirized in the philosophical paradox of Buridan's ass, where a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed exactly halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. Unable to choose between them, it dies.
In another study, participants viewed a series of images containing two fields of dots (e.g., 20 dots on one side of the screen and 10 on the other). For each trial they were shown a different image with two fields of dots. Participants had to decide which side had more dots. They were paid based on how many trials they got right. The more trials they responded to, the more they got paid.
In trials where the number of dots on each side of the screen was nearly equal, participants took significantly longer to choose than when there was a clear disparity. Again, this is irrational.
Participants would have made more money if they had just quickly made a decision and moved to the next trial.
In some of the trials, the researchers imposed artificial time constraints. Participants made decisions faster and thus made more money when researchers told them they had a limited amount of time to respond in each trial.
The researchers conclude, “people apparently misallocate their time, spending too much on those choice problems in which the relative reward is low.”
I thought about cases where this idea would apply. If choosing between the University of Phoenix and UC Berkeley, then you wouldn’t spend much time deciding. If choosing between UC Berkeley and UCLA, many would, even after weighing the pros and cons and determining that they would enjoy the experience at both colleges, spend a painstaking amount of time on this decision.
Another example is what movie to watch. If you’re deciding between movies that all seem appealing and all score above 90 percent on rotten tomatoes, then you’ll probably enjoy any one you choose.
Some people spend way too long at restaurants deciding what to order. Pick a couple of items that sound good and then ask the server which is better.
Or take vacations. If your choices for a holiday are Barcelona or Pyongyang, the choice is (probably) easy. But if you’re deciding between Barcelona or Rome, this should be easy too.
Still, sometimes options are not straightforward. As George MacGill has said, “When presented with two options, choose the one that brings about the greater amount of luck.”
Even if two choices are equal, one might bring you more luck.
If two gyms are equidistant from your house and you’re single and looking to meet someone, perhaps it would be wiser to join the gym that is next to a cafe or a grocery store.
Sometimes the decision-making process itself is pleasurable. Even if all outcomes will be equally rewarding, spending time discussing options with others or privately mulling them over might be satisfying.
There is other research suggesting that people take longer to distinguish between two numbers when there is a small discrepancy than when there is a large one.
For example, people take longer to determine which number is larger between 47 vs. 49 than for 12 vs. 35. Researchers refer to this as “numerical discrimination.”
A recent paper titled “The Adaptive Value of Numerical Competence” describes the idea:
“Similar numerical values are difficult to discriminate, but discrimination performance is systematically enhanced the more different (or distant) two values are (an effect called ‘numerical distance effect’).”
Perhaps this tendency is one reason why people take so long to choose between two options with roughly equal payoffs. Just as we have difficulty distinguishing numbers that are nearly equal in value, we also have difficulty selecting between options that are roughly equal in utility.
I am curious whether this works in the opposite direction—whether duration of decision-making implies equal utility.
When options are roughly equal, people tend to take a long time to make a decision.
Does this also imply that if people take a long time to decide, then the options are roughly equal? Maybe the longer we take to make a decision, the less it matters what we actually choose.
As an aside, people appear to have different emotional responses to the words “choices” and “options.” They mean the same thing. But feel different.
“Making choices” feels scary. “Having options” feels empowering.
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My wife and I play a game where we each pick 3 movies we would be down to watch, put them on a numbered list, then roll a die. It's kind of silly, but it actually helps a lot making decisions.
Sometimes the length of time spent making the decision can be part of the enjoyment of whatever is chosen. My son and I have planned three trips for every one we've taken and we both have tremendous fun in the planning and debating process.
Visiting various colleges with your children is another example where the effort significantly overshoots the expected differences in outcome, but, again, the process is valuable in itself.
Both my examples are as a parent of now adult children (who I think are older than you are!). So, maybe there's a general "process" exception to parent/child decision making. Probably also for engaged or married couples.
Good post in that you made me think!