Tough dilemmas

Two simple mechanisms that can help with difficult choices, can this be true?

arry is a bit of a hit with the women — or at least that is what he thinks of himself. But it’s time to settle down, and he gets engaged to his long-time girlfriend Lynne, the eldest of Charlie’s four daughters. Yet he is in two minds. Can he really be a faithful husband? Actually, does he want to be a faithful husband? As the wedding nears, his doubts grow, so much so that, one evening in the pub, his future father-in-law spots his anguish. Charlie places a beermat in front of Garry, and says, “Imagine this is a button you can press to call the whole wedding off. Would you do it?”

This is a storyline from the British soap opera Eastenders nearly twenty years ago. It is a little paraphrased, as my memory is a bit hazy (maybe it was a friend instead of Garry’s prospective father-in-law who confronted him). What I do remember is the use of the trick-with-the-beermat. It is the equivalent of the behavioural device of prompted or forced choice: it eliminates the option of not making a decision. Garry must make up his mind: not pressing the button means choosing to tie the knot, pressing it means choosing to remain an unrestrained bachelor. (If you’re curious, Garry did not press the button, married Lynne, and supplied numerous new storylines, having turned out anything but a faithful husband.)

The unbearable toughness of choosing

We have to make many decisions every day. A large proportion don’t need much or even any cognitive effort — we use mostly shortcuts and habits, with at most some conscious but superficial trade-offs. But for some dilemmas habits and shortcuts don’t help, and the trade-offs are much harder to make. Choices that are difficult or expensive to undo, or where the benefits and disadvantages of either option are disparate, for example: getting married or not, leaving your job to set up on your own or staying put, buying this house rather than that one, and so on.

Why are these choices so hard? One reason is often the uncertainty involved. It can be about what we don’t know: what will it be like to live in this house rather than in that one? Will the neighbours be friendly, or absolute bastards? Is the noise of the traffic on the main road around the corner bearable at night? It can also be about how we will respond to what we do know: how will we feel about living in the countryside — will we not miss the city too much? Are we not trivializing a 30-minute longer commute each way too easily? Will we enjoy caring for a huge garden?

What a view! Unfortunately the kitchen is nothing special… (photo: PressReleaseFinder CC BY)

Uncertainty is exacerbated if we want to be sure we chose the best option. The toughest dilemmas have disparate features (one house has a fantastic kitchen, the other one has breath-taking views), that are hard to evaluate against each other. There is no spreadsheet that can really solve that problem. And even if you could score each characteristic on the same scale, the sheer number of aspects that need scoring might make it practically impossible.

Behind tough dilemmas we find regret aversion. Most people hate, really hate, regretting having made the wrong decision. If any decision that is not perfect is the wrong one, and it is impossible to make a clear decision based on the available facts, such choices can be mental torture. And even if we are satisficers, happy with a choice that is good enough, well aware there may be a better one out there, we can still experience regret.

When deciding not to decide is not an option

One way to deal with such tough dilemmas is to avoid them: simply not decide, and indefinitely postpone the decision. Who knows, something might turn up that makes the decision for us. Say the owners of one of the two houses take it off the market, making the other one the only remaining choice. This would be fantastic news: if the choice is taken out of your hands, you won’t have to blame yourself for the choice.

Or there could be some material change to either of the options that makes the actual decision a no-brainer. Maybe the other house turns out to be at serious risk of subsidence. You will not regret not choosing a house that might have collapsed a few years later, no matter how breath-taking its views.

But if there is no such unexpected event, then eventually a deadline will hit you, and you will have to choose after all. Garry’s button simulates this situation. It only pretends to force a choice (there is of course nothing inherently binding in a beermat button), but it nevertheless has the capacity to help you somehow cut through all the peripheral baggage, straight to the core of the matter. It also gives you a taste of what it feels like to actually make up your mind and leave the agony of indecision behind you. If (not) having pressed the beermat button feels right after sleeping on it, you probably made the right choice; if you regret your choice, then better switch. Prompted choice can really focus the mind. (Naturally you can use other objects than beermats for the pretend decision button.)

Small change to the rescue

But what if, even facing the pretend button, you are still wavering? Then reach for your purse, and get out a coin. For the humble piece of copper (or nickel, or zinc) has the power of helping you make up your mind, without any further practical or cognitive effort. That is what a recent paper by Maria Douneva (a social psychologist at Basel University) and colleagues suggests. They used three different binary choice scenarios (decide whether or not the contract with a store employee should be extended; which of two unbranded backpacks costs more; and which of two charities should receive a donation). Participants were given a small amount of information, on the basis of which they had to make a preliminary decision. They could then ask for additional information before making a definitive choice. In the treatment condition, the request for information was preceded by a (virtual) coin toss, with each side of the coin corresponding with one of the options. No coin was tossed in the control condition.

In all scenarios, participants in the treatment condition were found to request significantly less information, both if the decision the coin toss had suggested was the same as their preliminary decision, and if it was opposed. To make up their minds, they needed less supplemental information to do so: they were more certain.

Feel the power of 20 cents! (image: stux/Pixabay)

And there is more. Economist and co-author of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt ran a similar experiment, but in the field. On a dedicated website, visitors could seek help with a difficult life decision (Quit my job? Break up with my partner? Have a child? etc — all were change vs. status quo questions). After choosing a decision (or supplying their own) and completing a short survey about it, the ‘change’ option was assigned to heads, and the status quo to tails of a virtual coin. Next the coin was flipped, suggesting one of the two choices. More than 20,000 people participated, and they were subsequently surveyed two months, and six months after the coin flip. What did Prof. Levitt find?

Two months on, fewer people reported having made the change than had predicted they would at the time of the coin toss. This suggests a general status quo bias, but this was no longer present after six months. He also found that those who did change were happier than those who did not.

More importantly, the coin tosses appear to have had an actual influence on the action taken: those who flipped heads (i.e. the coin said ‘go for it!’) were 25% more likely to report actually pursuing the change than those who got tails. For less important questions (like go on a diet) the effect was strongest (67%); but even for more important questions (get a divorce) it was still 10%. Furthermore, for participants with big life questions who were instructed by the coin to change, the increased happiness reported seems to have been caused by the change, leading Levitt to the suggestion that people are perhaps excessively cautious when considering big life-changing decisions.

Such power in a humble coin flip. How come? One explanation is that it activates a sense of closure. You pretend the decision has been made, and so you can contemplate the consequence of the choice dictated by the coin as if it were real: regarding one option from the viewpoint of actually having chosen it, and the other as if you had rejected it. And you can change your mind!

This can amplify your underlying preference, which was perhaps not so clear prior to the coin flip. If you feel content with the coin’s choice, with little regret you did not choose the alternative, stick with it. If, on the other hand, you do feel regret and would like to switch, then go for the other option. This mechanism is supported with the observations of the Douvea paper: after a coin flip, whatever its outcome, people feel less need to seek out more information. They feel more certain about their eventual choice.

Of course, both the button and the coin flip could easily be turned into a smartphone app. But it is kind of reassuring to realize that two powerful tools that can help you resolve tough dilemmas, when you feel paralysed by indecision, are delightfully low-tech.

Originally published at on August 2, 2019.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every week) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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