How Difficult Decisions Trick Your Brain Into Thinking They're Important

Have you ever stood in the supermarket, deciding between two different types of toothpaste, when suddenly you realise you've been there for ten minutes? Here's how you're being tricked into thinking small decisions are actually important.

Jonah Lehrer over at Wired describes this exact experience and seeks out an explanation. It turns out, when we have a lot of options put in front of us, decisions become more difficult—and we associate that difficulty with the importance of the decision:

Our central premise is that people use subjective experiences of difficulty while making a decision as a cue to how much further time and effort to spend. People generally associate important decisions with difficulty. Consequently, if a decision feels unexpectedly difficult, due to even incidental reasons, people may draw the reverse inference that it is also important, and consequently increase the amount of time and effort they expend. Ironically, this process is particularly likely for decisions that initially seemed unimportant because people expect them to be easier.

Researchers demonstrated this idea through a study that showed harder-to-read fonts actually made people think a decision was more important—simply because it required more brainpower to make. There's not much you can do to fix this, but it's something to keep in mind next time you are at the supermarket. When you realise you've been standing there for over 30 seconds, think to yourself: "is the decision between these two brands of deodorant really important?" The answer's probably no.

Why Are Easy Decisions So Hard? [Wired]


    "A timely account of the role of duration in decision making"
    21 page MIT study by leader in irrational thought Dan Ariely:

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