I cannot decide whether or not to go to the movies.
I cannot decide whether or not to break up with him.
I cannot decide whether or not I want pizza.
We have all said these things, right? Alternatively, something similar to them? We create binary decisions for many of the go/no-go decisions in our lives. We do the research, narrow our options, and when we land on something we love, we come to a crossroads: whether or not.
The research on the paradox of choice is widespread. Barry Schwartz has written and spoken extensively on the subject. In a study of jam purchasing behavior, shoppers given six choices of jam both purchased more jam and were overall happier with the decision. The purchasing decision was more natural, as there were fewer options, and the perceived loss of opportunity to try the other types of jam was not as high. Pretty simple.
However, there’s a missing piece to this study. Choice and agency are still features of decision-making that we crave, which is why companies began making more options. If you met a shelf of all Strawberry Jam, you might find the choice somewhat frustrating. Do you want to know why?
Whether or not I want strawberry jam is a difficult question to answer.
It is a difficult question because we rely on a very traditional method of decision-making: the list of pros and cons. We decide what the positive aspects of strawberry jam would be, as well as the negative aspects. Depending on how those values weigh out, we choose.
Lists of pros and cons lead you to make terrible decisions.
Think about it: lists and pros and cons are missing a massive part of decision-making. They give you no viable alternative. Your choice is to pull the trigger or to put down the gun.
If you decide not to get the strawberry jam, you have no jam. The consequence of this is revisiting an earlier decision you made. It might have been the decision to class up your dry toast in the morning, or the choice to find a new way to sweeten your oatmeal. Whatever it is, you now need to revisit that decision. We do not like revisiting decisions; it wastes time and energy.
To avoid this disappointment, you are overwhelmingly likely to weight the pros side of an equation because a known quantity is better than unknown. All humans appreciate and value certainty. You may undervalue apparent facts, like your long-standing hatred of strawberries, to avoid the disappointment of not having anything to show for your shopping trip.
The other problem is that your cons have no context or outlet. In a whether or not scenario, you must accept any disadvantages you generate as part of your decision. The only way to avoid them is not to decide at all. Rather than asking how do I eliminate those cons, we ask am I willing to tolerate these drawbacks in the presence of the advantages that this decision offers. Do you see where bias originates?
Introducing even a single viable alternative can upend our decision-making process for the better. It gives us more opportunity to complete our original objective, gives us agency in choosing the downsides of our decision, and helps us to appreciate the existence of alternatives in the universe.
In the context of jam, this is not such a big deal. Regardless of whether or not you choose to buy jam, your life is likely to remain materially unchanged.
However, what about when we do this with a career? Or car? Or decision around a life partner? We tend to use this framework on massive, monumental choices in our lives!
Come on–be honest: haven’t you asked these questions, too?
I need to decide whether or not to accept the offer.
I need to decide whether or not I want that Porsche.
I need to decide whether or not to propose.
If you take nothing else away from this article, I sincerely hope that the next time you are faced with a significant decision, you work swiftly and decisively to move away from whether choices. They will not serve you well.
There is another study that offered an excellent way to combat the dreaded bias of pros and cons. Subjects in the study were provided two choices in a whether or not fashion. The original wording of the survey was as such:
Would you like to purchase this entertaining DVD for $14.95?
Would you prefer not to have an entertaining DVD?
This demonstrates exactly how we set up whether or not questions. We can have something for a cost, or we can have nothing. In this context, 75% of people purchased the DVD when asked this question. Then, the researchers changed the language slightly:
Would you like to buy this entertaining DVD for $14.95?
Would you prefer not to have the entertaining DVD and keep the $14.95 for a different purchase?
The results? Only 55% of people purchased the DVD when given this option.
The change was incredibly small but so powerful. What did the researchers unlock?
- The introduced the idea of opportunity cost.
- They opened the mind of the participant to perceive alternative options.
Rather than asking whether or not a DVD was worth $14.95, the question becomes: what types of entertainment can I purchase or received for $14.95? There are thousands of answers, many of which are likely to create more value or utility than the DVD. Hence, many more people opted out of purchasing.
So, the next time that you face an important decision, what are some ways that you can make sure to not fall into this trap?
- Make sure that there is a viable alternative. Even if it is not as defined as the primary target, ensure that you are deciding between two things versus one thing and nothing.
- Get some outside perspective! You may weight pros and cons differently depending on your mindset and how important the decision is within your life. However, if you asked your best friend if you should buy strawberry jam, her response will likely be, “You hate strawberries–why would you buy that jam?”
- Ask what someone else would do. Per where we started in this article, we are amazingly adept at making sound decisions about things that do not affect us, or that affect other people. We are free from his biases and offer valuable outside perspective. As such, ask what someone that you know and trust what he would do. Exposure to a different frame of reference of thinking can give you a new variable or perspective that helps you make a better decision.
Do you want to know the best part about all this? These reframing exercises are not complicated. Once you open your mind to challenge how you position the question, it is easy to find alternatives and different solutions to the problems. From now on, keep your eyes, ears, heart, and mind on the lookout for when you are asking a whether question, particularly if you have been struggling with one for quite some time. These suggestions may well help you to get unstuck.
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*This article was inspired by teachings from Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath