Why Trivial Decisions Can Seem So Daunting

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The latest research on choice overload suggests that the time it takes to process data affects the perceived significance of a selection.

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PROBLEM: Sometimes, we get stuck in store aisles judging the dizzying array of options available. But why does our choice of toothbrush or the shade of white paint we use for the kitchen even matter?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by University of Florida's Aner Sela gave 264 online respondents a selection of flights and measured the time it took for them to choose. One group viewed their alternatives from a site that used small, low-contrast font, while another read the same choices in a larger, high-contrast font that was much easier to understand. The authors also asked the subjects to rate the decision's significance before and after the survey.

RESULTS: The obscured font forced the participants to decipher their options and prolonged deliberation time. This extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance, and this effect was strongest among those who initially believed that the flight choice was unimportant. The unexpected difficulty also caused people to voluntarily seek more options, increasing decision difficulty even more.

CONCLUSION: Harder decisions seem more substantial, and this skewed perception makes choosing even more stressful.

IMPLICATION: People may fall into a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance. "Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation, but may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant," explained the authors in their paper. "Decision quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems, the more we struggle."

SOURCE: The full study, "Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In," is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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