The Trouble with One at a Time

New research shows that seeing all your options at once makes you happier with the choice you make.

September 14, 2012

| by Marina Krakovsky



Tea-flavored chocolates at the Chocolate Fair in Barcelona, 2006 | Reuters/Albert Gea

Several years ago, Baba Shiv, the Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing at Stanford GSB, was talking with fellow Indian-American psychologist Sheena Iyengar (PhD, ‘97, psychology), a management professor at Columbia Business School, about marriage: specifically, whether arranged marriages, such as the ones common in India, last longer than “love marriages,” those freely chosen matches that so often end in divorce. Besides the many cultural differences that could explain the fates of these two types of marriage, was there something about the psychology of how we make choices that affects satisfaction and commitment?

In trying to answer this question scientifically, Shiv and Iyengar worked with Cassie Mogilner (PhD, ‘09), now a professor of marketing at the Wharton School. The trio focused on one crucial difference between these two ways of making a match: whether or not you’re seeing all your options arrayed at once. For example, love marriages are the result of what the researchers call “sequential choice,” whereby people typically forsake all others only after a multiyear process of dating, one at a time, several prospective mates. An arranged marriage, in contrast, comes from a more or less simultaneous decision-making process, like speed dating in slow motion. As Shiv says of his own experience, “The due diligence had already been done by mom, who’s an expert. I had a set of three or four options, and my wife had three or four.” After seeing all these options, the only task is to pick the best match of the lot.

In that light, the arranged-marriage model does seem appealingly simple. But does simultaneous choice leave people better off than sequential choice? To investigate, the researchers didn’t look at dating and marriage, which don’t lend themselves to controlled lab experiments. Instead, they focused on less momentous but equally interesting choices: those involving wine, chocolate, and the color of nail polish. Across all these experiments, (Journal of Consumer Research, in press), the basic result was the same: being able to examine all their options at once leaves consumers more satisfied and committed to their decision than if they see one option before moving on to the next.

For example, in the chocolate experiment, the researchers presented participants with detailed descriptions of fine chocolates (such as dark chocolate ganache with black tea and hints of citrus and vanilla), and asked them to choose which one they wanted to taste. The “simultaneous” group saw the whole list at once, whereas the “sequential” group saw one at a time and stopped once they saw a description of the chocolate they wanted to sample. After they had picked a chocolate and tasted it, participants in both groups filled out a short survey about their satisfaction with their chosen confection. The result: sequential choosers were less satisfied with their chocolates than were participants in the simultaneous group. And, when offered the opportunity to switch to a different chocolate — a randomly selected one, they were told — more of the sequential choosers opted to do so, even though they knew virtually nothing about it.

Part of the reason for these results is clearly regret over having passed over options that might be better than the chosen one. Yet in a different experiment, even when sequential choosers were allowed to go back to an option they’d already seen (and therefore didn’t feel regret), these choosers ended up less committed to their choice. The research reveals that this happens because a second emotion is at work: the hope that a subsequent, yet-to-be-known option will be better. “These emotions [of hope and regret] are prompting us to move to the next option even though the next option could be worse than the current one,” Shiv says. When people are in simultaneous mode, on the other hand, they don’t think about other options and therefore don’t imagine a better option showing up.

For retailers and others in a position to present choices, the research highlights the benefits of presenting samples all at once, if possible. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t always offer us the luxury of simultaneous decisions all the time,” Shiv says. That’s true of single people looking for the love of their life, VCs evaluating investment opportunities pitched to them, or hiring managers deciding whether to make a job offer or to keep searching in the hope of finding a better candidate. “In those contexts, we need to understand that we fall prey to the bias for the eternal quest for the best,” Shiv says. And recognizing this bias may be the first step to correcting for it.

One strategy Shiv advises is to mentally convert a sequential choice into a “quasi-simultaneous” one by recalling past instances of the best options you ever chose or of options that, in hindsight, you regret passing over. Once you do that, you can compare your present option with those recalled, almost as if you had all your options before you at once.

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