Life’s most baffling decisions are among non-comparable choices: “apples-to-oranges” comparisons.
University of Toronto’s Eunice Kim Cho collaborated with Uzma Khan of Stanford and Yale’s Ravi Dhar to investigate whether non-comparable choices may be made easier and more satisfying by changing their “level of representation,” or decision context.
Cho and team drew on Construal Level Theory (CLT) discussed by NYU’s Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman of Tel Aviv University and Cheryl Wakslak, now of USC, to differentiate decisions construed as concrete, specific, contextualized, and personal from more abstract, distant options based on future time, remote space, social distance, and hypothetical probability.
Trope and team reported that these differing construals can determine people’s predictions, decisions, and behavior.
Kim’s team offered volunteers a gift card and asked half of the participants to choose between comparable choices (different types of chess sets or different types of consumer electronics).
The remaining subjects chose between non-comparable options (chess set vs. cheese sampler or consumer electronic device vs. event tickets), and all participants chose between these options for themselves (specific context) or for an acquaintance (abstract context).
When people chose for themselves, at the more personal, specific construal level, they found it easier to select between more similar choices, the two chess sets, but not the dissimilar choice of chess set vs. cheese platter.
In contrast, when participants chose a gift for a more socially-distant person, an acquaintance, they found it easier to select between dissimilar items.
Kim and team concluded that it’s easier to make dissimilar choices when the options are represented at a higher level of abstraction to enable “big picture thinking.”
Marketers use this principle to position dissimilar choices more abstractly, like “level of enjoyment” rather than focusing on specific specific product features, to help consumers make decisions more quickly.
Decision-making ease is crucial because it is associated with greater satisfaction with the decision.
When taking a decision is complex and stressful, many people doubt the decision and feel less content.
Liberman and Jens Forster, now of University of Amsterdam, demonstrated that complex, non-comparable, or confusing choices are associated with lower decision satisfaction and greater likelihood of choosing the previously rejected option in a subsequent decision.
Individuals can consider more abstract, “big-picture” criteria when deciding between differing options, such as equal expenditures on a a material possession or an experience, to increase ease and speed of decision-making.
The next post considers which type of purchase – material or experiential – most people find more satisfying.
-*How do you make decisions when the choices are not directly comparable?
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