Complicating Choice

When it comes to life's biggest decisions, we make our choices harder than they may really be.
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Based on research by Rom Schrift, Oded Netzer, and Ran Kivetz

Human beings have developed all kinds of ways to tackle life’s everyday decisions in order to make the process of choosing less overwhelming or less time-consuming by simplifying and organizing — for example, ordering the same dish as a dining companion, sorting alternatives by an important feature, or excluding the least familiar menu items from consideration.

As pervasive as these strategies to streamline the decision-making process may be, they may not carry over to bigger decisions, a question that Rom Schrift, PhD ’11, and Professors Oded Netzer and Ran Kivetz considered after reflecting on some shared experiences: while making some of their most significant decisions — choosing which job offer to take, which home to buy, whom to marry — all expressed the same sense of the somewhat illusory nature of these important decisions. “There was a feeling that we first made a choice and then (over-) deliberated about it,” Netzer says. “We weren’t admitting to ourselves that we had already made the decision.”

Was all that deliberating mostly for show? Schrift, now at Wharton, based his doctoral dissertation on this question, and, together with his advisers Kivetz and Netzer, returned a good deal of evidence that, unlike small decisions, people do indeed make important decisions more difficult than they need to be — particularly if their decision initially strikes them as easier than they believe it should be. In a series of experiments, the researchers identified the many shades in which this process, which they term complicating choice, plays out:

Making the unimportant important
Subjects initially rated availability for home visits as the least important consideration when choosing a doctor compared to the availability of evening and weekend appointments or shorter wait times for appointments. When presented with the more “difficult” choice between two doctors, which traded off the two important aspects of wait times and evening and weekend appointments, subjects barely considered home visits in the their decision. But when offered a seemingly easy choice between a doctor who had a 10-day waiting period for an appointment and no evening or weekend hours and a doctor who had only a three-day wait for appointments and also offered evening and weekend hours but had no home visits — arguably the superior choice — subjects suddenly weighted the attribute of whether or not that doctor offered home visits as much more important. “If my top choice college is a three-hour flight from my hometown while my third choice is only a two-hour flight, that one-hour difference shouldn’t sway me,” Netzer explains. “But often, it suddenly becomes a big issue. We tend to inflate the importance of unimportant attributes.”

Making easy choices harder and harder choices easier
In one study, the researchers first asked subjects to rate a dozen famous paintings on a 12-point scale in terms of their liking. Next, the subjects were presented with two of the paintings, chosen at random, and given the somewhat weightier task of rerating two of the paintings to choose one for inclusion in a museum’s permanent collection. Subjects who chose between paintings they initially rated far apart (i.e., an easy decision) made their decision more difficult by rerating these paintings much closer in overall liking. On the other hand, when choosing between paintings they initially rated closer (i.e., a difficult decision) subjects simplified their choice by rerating the pair of paintings as farther apart.

This is the inverse of what you might expect, but it displays the complicating dynamic easily: subjects might normally expect an easy time choosing between two paintings rated far apart, but when the decision is of greater consequence, and subjects therefore expect to to put a lot of effort into the decision, they artificially make it harder on themselves. “A choice that initially seemed easy because it was not of great consequence suddenly becomes more difficult when imbued with greater consequence,” Netzer explains. “Different options appear more similar than they did before.”

Changing preferences based on different levels of attributes
The researchers presented subjects with two job offers, one with a better salary and an easier commute, the other with a somewhat lower salary and a longer commute. The third aspect of the job included working on a three- or six-person team. When asked to choose between the alternatives, subjects changed their preference for the team size in order to make the inferior job offer appear more attractive. That is, when the inferior alternative offered working on a three-person team, subjects showed higher preference for working on a three-person team.

However, this preference reversed when the inferior alternative offered working with six team members: subjects changed their preference for the number of team members to work with in order to make the inferior job offer (which they eventually did not choose) appear more attractive, thus complicating their choice. Further, such relatively unimportant attributes can influence subsequent decisions: when subjects were later asked to choose between two jobs that were far more similar in salary and commute, they were more likely to choose the team size linked to their previous, inferior choice.

Strikingly, despite all of their effort, in most cases people end up selecting the option they would have — the clear winner — in the absence of these complicating strategies. The researchers conclude that when it comes to big decisions, people try to achieve a match between the expected effort of making a choice and the effort they feel they are putting into it. They term this the effort compatibility principle. “There’s a feeling of needing to do due diligence for important decisions,” Netzer says. “And if we don’t feel like we have done due diligence, we find ways to artificially create such a process.”

Netzer notes that in real life, most of these big decisions are made after a long process. “Deciding to get married is often a question of deliberating over the obvious. We know we will eventually make the decision,” he says. “We made the choice a long time ago but we still force ourselves to go through this process.”

Because many of these kinds of major, life-changing decisions are made infrequently, people opt for diligence, even if it puts making the best decision — or the opportunity of a lifetime — in jeopardy. “By the time we get to it, it may not be there anymore because we think we need to work hard,” Netzer says. “We want to see three or four more apartments, but by the time we see them, the first apartment, which really was the apartment of our dreams, has sold.”

The good news is that it may be possible to counteract this arguably non-optimal tendency simply by faking it. In a separate experiment, when the researchers presented subjects with a set of choices in a big, easy-to-read font and then on a tiny, warped, hard-to-read font, those reading the tiny font were far less likely to complicate their ultimate choices. The strain of reading the cramped font sufficed for diligence. Similarly, the researchers suggest that combing through consumer ratings or even driving to a far corner of town to make a major purchase can constitute enough effort to satisfy the need to be diligent.

Retailers might apply complicating behavior not necessarily to clinch a sale so much as to help buyers believe they’ve done their due diligence. “Rather than show a buyer two very different alternatives and convince her that one is much better than all the others, it might be better to show two choices that are very similar, then prompt a conflict to make the buyer feel like she worked hard to arrive at her choice.”

That people may complicate some choices in life isn’t at odds with the tendency to simplify others, the researchers are careful to note. “It just means that if you expect an easy choice and you get a really tough choice, you simplify it,” Netzer says. “And if you expected a tough choice and then it seems kind of obvious — your dream apartment is the first one you see, for instance — then you complicate it.”

Ran Kivetz is the Philip H. Geier Jr. Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School.

Oded Netzer is the Philip H. Geier Jr. Associate Professor in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.

This paper won the 2010 Best Competitive Paper Award, Society of Consumer Psychology.

About the researcher

Oded Netzer

Professor Netzer's expertise centers on one of the major business challenges of the data-rich environment: developing quantitative methods that leverage data to gain...

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About the researcher

Ran Kivetz

Professor Ran Kivetz is a tenured professor at Columbia University Business School, where he holds the Philip H. Geier endowed chair.  Professor Kivetz...

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