As a psychologist, I have always found the concept of speed dating fascinating. In fact, some years ago, I decided to try it myself. At the time, I had just moved to Boston and didn’t know that many people yet, so I figured I would give the speed-dating scene a go. As it turns out, I like to talk – so much, in fact, that I have a tendency to talk people’s ears off. When the little buzzer went off after three minutes, I was (typically) still in the process of trying to explain to my bedazzled dating partner why my last name has three syllables (it’s Dutch). As you can imagine, I did not find the love of my life.
Fortunately, the majority of people do not seem to share my particular troubles with speed dating. Yet new research does point out a different dating problem: being confronted with a large number of choices can make it harder to make a good decision. In fact, it can even prevent you from a making a decision in the first place. You might assume that when trying to find a good dating partner, having a large, varied pool of potential candidates available to you is a good thing, but new research indicates that it is not. Alison Lenton and Marco Francesconi recently published an article in the Biology Letters in which they analyzed over 3,700 human dating decisions across 84 speed-dating events. The authors found that when the available dates varied more in attributes such as age, height, occupation and educational background, people made fewer dating proposals. This effect was particularly strong when people were faced with a large number of potential partners. In fact, when both conditions were present, participants were more likely to make no decision at all.
Similarly, research on online dating performed by Alison Lenton and Barbara Fasolo indicated that participants presented with more potential partners did not experience any greater emotional satisfaction than participants presented with fewer options. (They were, if anything, more confused about their choices.) These findings do not only pertain to the world of dating. Other research has shown that more choices can cause people to avoid decisions and generally lead them to be less satisfied. Have you ever had trouble trying to decide what brand of candy to buy in the supermarket? Well, several experiments have shown that when shoppers are presented with either an extensive or limited amount of potential consumer choices (e.g. chocolates, jam flavors) more people actually end up making purchases, and are happier, when the choice environment only offers a limited set of options.
It is not that surprising that our decision making system breaks down when the human brain is confronted with too many options. Similar evidence is found in other non-human animals. In an attempt to cope with the large amount of information and potential choices that we are presented with on a daily basis, we tend to rely on so-called “heuristics” (rules of thumb) that help guide our decision making. In essence, heuristics are decision-making tools that save effort by ignoring some information; and thus, their essential function is to reduce and simplify the processing of cues and information from our environment. In other words, less is more.
In particular, prior research by Lenton and Francesconi suggests that when the number of potential speed-dating partners goes up, people tend to increasingly rely on heuristics in their decision making strategies. For example, the authors found that in speed-dating events where the amount of potential partners to choose from is relatively large, people predominantly pay attention to information that is easily accessible, such as age, height, body mass index, etc., rather than information that is harder to observe, such as occupation and education.
Because of their simplicity, heuristics have long been viewed as inferior to rational thought. In particular, people tend to assume that it is always a good thing to think long and hard about everything, consciously deliberating different potential outcomes and rationally weighing different pros and cons. However, an emerging field of research is questioning this traditional view. Gerd Gigerenzer recently summarized more than a decade of research concerning the role of heuristics in human decision making. Gigerenzer argues that heuristics aren’t a cognitive shortcoming at all. Rather, the author postulates that over millions of years of human evolution, such “smart” and adaptive heuristics have successfully guided our decision making in various (uncertain) environments. In short, we use all kinds of heuristics on a daily basis and apparently we do so for a good reason.
To illustrate, consider a popular heuristic that people often employ, the so-called “recognition heuristic.” The recognition heuristic states that “if one of two objects is recognized and the other is not then we should infer that the recognized object has the higher value.” Such a decision rule may sound overly simplistic but various studies have supported its use and effectiveness. For example, in three studies predicting stock market performance, portfolios of stocks based on recognition (a constructed set of the most recognized stocks) outperformed (on average) managed funds, chance portfolios and stock expert predictions. Similarly, another study showed that when German students were asked to evaluate pairs of American colleges, the German students predicted their relative ranking with better accuracy than their American peers (based solely on their recognition of the university’s name). Thus, in some cases, having limited knowledge can actually lead to more accurate outcomes. If you’re still not entirely convinced, consider the fact that you are able to judge the appeal of a face in less than 13 milliseconds. That’s right, research strongly suggests that your mind has decided on the attractiveness of a face before you are even consciously aware of the fact that you have seen one.
In conclusion, when pressured for time and faced with many competing options, “fast and frugal” decision making can (potentially) enhance the quality of our decisions. Selecting your future spouse based on the recognition heuristic might be overdoing it a bit, but when overwhelmed with potential choices at a speed-dating event, supermarket aisle or restaurant menu, going with a simple heuristic is a reasonable option. If anything, over millions of years of human evolution, “smart” intuitive heuristics that guide our decision making have helped us get to where we are today. Perhaps nowadays there is a tendency to over-think things. We might all benefit from listening a little more to our gut. Perhaps if I had done so a few years ago, my speed-dating experience would have turned out a little more successful as well.
Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.