Social Sciences

Mulling Things Over Won't Help You Make A Decision

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We all have that friend who pores over his menu options at a restaurant like he's deciding which family member to save from a fire. If you don't, then you probably are that friend. It's common to feel like dismissing the waiter to give yourself more time will help you make a decision, but it won't. In fact, mulling over a decision actually makes for more indecision.

Related: The 200 Food Decisions You Don't Know You're Making

Why we're covering this: 

  • Because we've all been there, and we should all stop. 
  • It's comforting to know that sometimes making a quick decision isn't impulsive, it's just smart. 
  • It's enlightening to learn what happens in our minds when we make even the smallest decision.

Just Pick Something!

In a 2011 paper titled Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In, marketing professors Aner Sela and Jonah Berger had volunteers choose between two airline flights. Researchers warned one study group that the flights were long, so they needed to choose wisely. The other study group was told that both trips were easy, so they were safe with either choice. The researchers then presented the flight options in either a normal type size or a tiny, hard-to-read type—adding to their perceived ease or difficulty. That way, there was one hard-to-read important decision, one easy-to-read important decision, one hard-to-read unimportant decision, and one easy-to-read unimportant decision

Related: The Framing Effect Shows How Word Choice Affects Your Decisions

The groups with the important decisions had the most difficulty deciding, right? Nope. Participants with the "unimportant" travel decision printed in the hard-to-read type took the longest time of all the groups to make their decisions. They also believed that their decision was important, even though they were told it was just an "easy trip." Why? As the study states, "if a decision feels unexpectedly difficult, due to even incidental reasons, people may draw the reverse inference that it is also important and consequently increase the amount of time and effort they expend." Choosing between spaghetti and fettuccine alfredo isn't a life-or-death situation, but when you spend 15 minutes making a decision, it's suddenly very important.

Related: Why You Make Better Decisions In Another Language

It's About Time

The researchers call this conundrum "decision quicksand." Seems appropriate, right? As Scientific American phrases so well, "time equals difficulty, which then translates into importance, which leads to even more time spent deciding." It's the mulling-over that makes trivial decisions seem so critical. And, really, it doesn't matter—tagliatelle alla bolognese is obviously the correct decision.

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