Why do people often get bogged down in trivial decisions? It turns out that our brains use the difficulty encountered in making a decision as a factor in deciding how much more time to spend on it. Researchers Aner Sela and Jonah Berger call this process “decision quicksand”.
We expect significant decisions to be difficult and trivial decisions to be easy. So if making a decision turns out to be harder than expected, we make a ‘reverse inference’ that the decision must be important, and so we spend more time and effort on the decision process. In fact, we may seek even more options, making the decision process even more complex.
“Difficulty of decision = significance of decision” is one of the shortcuts that characterise our ‘metacognition‘ (literally ‘thinking about thinking’, the algorithms that our brains use to govern our thought processes). Most of the time these shortcuts are helpful, because they save us from having to think everything out from first principles. Sometimes, though, they backfire.
“Decision quicksand” can happen even if the difficulty is unrelated to the importance of the decision – for example, having too many options to choose from, or trying to make a decision while tired.
How can we guard against decision quicksand? The researchers suggest:
- setting a limit on how long you spend on a trivial decision
- getting someone else to decide for you
- taking a break in the decision-making process and reminding yourself of the big picture: what is important about this decision and what goal is it working towards.
Additionally, you could eliminate trivial choices altogether where possible. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and eccentric scientist Seth Brundle in The Fly all famously eliminated decision fatigue around choosing what to wear by wearing similar outfits every day.
Source: Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In (full PDF) by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger, Journal of Consumer Research, 2012, vol. 39, issue 2, pages 360 – 370