Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Do you weigh out every decision carefully, analyzing all the pros and cons? Dr. Vishton reveals studies that show why quick decision-making is more compatible with our future happiness. We can reasonably apply the conclusions to choices about houses, cars, jobs, and even whom to marry.
Studies on Decisions and Desirability
Our ability to commit to decisions can significantly impact our future. A 1956 Yale study conducted by psychologist Jack Brehm demonstrates this concept.
Brehm displayed a series of items, including a lamp and a transistor radio, and asked participants to rank these items from their most favorite to their least favorite. After giving the participants a choice between two of these items, telling them they could take one of them home, he asked them to rank the desirability of the items again.
The item they chose shifted up in the ratings, while the item they did not pick dropped in the rankings. This experiment has been replicated by other psychologists, including Dan Gilbert and his research team, who conducted the study with art print posters.
After initially ranking and taking home the posters, participants were asked to reevaluate the posters after several days. Once again, the chosen item rose in the rankings.
When you decide on an option, your brain shifts its future preferences to perceive whatever you have chosen as being more positive. Whatever options you specifically have not chosen seem to decline in positivity.
In the case of the Gilbert study, perhaps having that painting at home and looking at it on the wall for an extended period made it seem better than it was at first. That wouldn’t explain the drop in preference for the option that was not selected, but it’s still reasonable to consider. At least some of the effect might be explained by this, but the same effect is shown by anterograde amnesia.
When someone suffers damage to their hippocampus—perhaps due to illness, stroke, or substance abuse—they often lose the ability to create new, explicit, long-term memories of things they experience. An anterograde amnesic can still remember things from their distant past—from events that took place before the hippocampal damage occurred.
They can also remember things on a short-term basis. If you asked someone with anterograde amnesia to remember a list of seven words, for example, they will typically be able to recall them a few seconds later.
However, if you left the room and returned 10 minutes later, and then asked him to recall the words, he wouldn’t remember them at all. He likely won’t remember that there was a list of words or even talking to you earlier.
Amnesic and Decision-Making
This example is relevant to the effect of making firm decisions and sticking with them because simply making a particular choice changes the anterograde amnesic’s future preferences as well. When Gilbert’s study was replicated with amnesic patients, the experimenter asked the amnesia patient to rate six posters from best to worst.
The experimenter then offered one of the posters as a gift, whichever was ranked third or fourth. The amnesic patient picked number three, just like most people. The amnesic then put the poster away, and the experimenter left the room for about 30 minutes.
The experimenter returned and had to reintroduce himself. The amnesiac didn’t remember meeting him or participating in the study 30 minutes earlier. The experimenter asked the amnesic participant to rate the posters, and the preferences changed.
The third-ranked poster moved up toward the top position. The unselected poster moved down in the ranking.
Owning the third-ranked poster somehow made it more desirable for the anterograde amnesic, even though he didn’t know that he owned it. It’s not the owning that matters here; it’s the fact that the poster was chosen in the past that made it seem better.
Committing to Decisions
Experimenters have added one extra wrinkle to this type of study on several occasions. Participants rank a range of choices and then the gift selection process is completed, just as in those previous studies, only this time the experimenter asks the participant, “Are you sure? Is that definitely what you want?”
Most participants say yes, but the experimenter continues, “OK. Just in case you change your mind, I’m going to contact you in a few days to make sure that you don’t want to change your selection. If you do want to switch, it’s no problem at all.”
The participant leaves with the chosen item, but also with an option. The participant leaves while still retaining the freedom to come back at any time and choose something else instead.
This lack of commitment eliminates the shift in preference associated with a choice. The chosen item doesn’t become more attractive; the unselected item doesn’t drop in desirability.
Therefore, according to Dr. Vishton, when we commit to our decisions and do not waver, we are more likely to be satisfied with these decisions later.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.