Decisiveness and Search: Two Different Strategies

First published February 11, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In “The Paradox of Choice,” author Barry Schwartz speculates that we all might be happier if we had fewer options in life. Our consumer-based society continually pumps out more and more options, forcing us into making more and more decisions. Schwartz convincingly draws a parallel between decisiveness and happiness. The less time we spend making decisions, the more we’ll be satisfied with our lives, he says.

A new study out of Wesleyan University explores the actual cognitive mechanisms of decisiveness. This has direct implications for search marketers, because every time we use a search engine, we’re forced to make decisions. In fact, every online interaction is a branching tree of decisions. The study provides new insight into the decision-making process we use as we guide ourselves through the online landscape.

Study Set-Up

The researchers at Wesleyan used a scenario familiar to their sample of 54 students: they had to pick courses for the upcoming semester. Course options were set up on a matrix that allowed students to evaluate their options on a few different criteria: time of the course, instructor quality, relevance, amount of work required and interest in topic. There were no “no-brainer” options. In each alternative, trade-offs were required.

The researchers also introduced a variable into the mix: the opportunity to delay final course selection.

Finally, they asked the students to use the course grid to help make their selections while using an eye-tracker to capture exactly what they looked at on the grid. After the task was completed, participants were asked to grade themselves on a standard decisiveness scale.

Decisive vs. Indecisive Strategies

Building on previous academic work on decisiveness, the researchers found that individuals tend to use two different strategies when making decisions.  The compensatory strategy tries to weigh all the decision attributes together, literally creating an evaluation formula in the decision-maker’s mind.  If there are five different decision criteria, all are considered at the same time and are weighted by the importance of each to the individual.

In a purely rational world, this would seem to be the optimal strategy, but as Schwartz pointed out, we are not rational decision-making machines. In their Nobel prize-winning work on Prospect Theory, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann  (and more recently, Dan Ariely) showed that we use irrational risk-triggered biases in our decision-making. These throw some significant wrenches into the workings of our decisiveness. Emotions get involved and we start feeling anxious. Decisions, even about things that will bring eventual rewards, start to cause us stress.

The other decision strategy is a non-compensatory, linear strategy. This is the foundation of Herbert Simon’s famous “satisficing” approach. Here, alternatives are quickly cut down by a sequential consideration of criteria, beginning with the one most important to the decision-maker. In the study scenario of picking courses, many looked first at the time the class would be taught, reasoning that if the time didn’t work for them, there was little point in considering the other things the course might offer. This quickly narrowed the consideration set. From there, they moved on to the next most important criterion. This sequential approach is relatively ruthless in eliminating candidates for consideration.

This study, along with others, found that indecisive decision-makers tend to start with a compensatory strategy, while decisive people start short-listing immediately with a non-compensatory strategy. In the next column, we’ll see how this difference in strategies was clearly shown in the eye tracking results. I’ll also explore how indecisive individuals are often forced to abandon one strategy for the other, which can cause significant stress.

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