Carl H. Lindner College of BusinessCarl H. Lindner College of BusinessUniversity of Cincinnati

Carl H. Lindner College of Business

UC Research Sheds Light on Why We Avoid Making Decisions

Monday, December 19, 2016 6:25 PM
Results show the bothersome nature of decision making impacts the way consumer handle decisions.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. We make them on a daily basis­—from the mundane (e.g., what to snack on) to the complex (e.g., who to vote for) —and, for many, this process of decision-making is nothing short of aversive. How then do consumers reconcile their need to make decisions with their desire to avoid the decision-making process?  

New research by Ashley Otto, PhD ’16 (now an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University), along with Joshua Clarkson and Frank Kardes (both marketing professors at the Lindner College of Business), demonstrates that consumers are likely to rely on a specific set of decision strategies that allow them to make decisions while bypassing the decision-making process, a term the researchers call decision sidestepping.

The research, "Decision Sidestepping: How the Motivation for Closure Prompts Individuals to Bypass Decision Making," is forthcoming in the July 2016 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

 The research highlights four common strategies of sidestepping that consumers rely on to make decisions by, essentially, avoiding them. The strategies —relying on a default, delegating a choice, maintaining an established status quo, sticking with a prior choice—all provide consumers with a valid option to resolve a decision. For instance, whether choosing a company health plan or setting up an investment fund, consumers may decide to rely on the default option or defer their choice to an expert rather than deliberate on the various options available to them.

Of course, we do not always find the decision-making process unbearable; in fact, we oftentimes engage in the decision-making process. When then should consumers be most likely to engage in decision sidestepping?

“The results show that a high motivation to achieve closure prompts a greater reliance on sidestepping strategies to reduce the bothersome nature of decision making," Otto says. In other words, consumers are more likely to bypass the decision-making process when they are motivated to not have to re-consider the decision.

Otto also notes that, while sidestepping avoids the aversion associated with decision making, the strategy is not without its costs—as sidestepping can lead to suboptimal decisions. To illustrate, in one experiment, participants were asked to complete a survey and were told they would receive a specific candy for participating. Importantly, they were presented with the option to either select their own candy out of a variety-bag (which may include their favorite candy) or stick with a default option that was not their favorite candy.

“We found that people seeking closure went with the default choice, even though the variety bag had the potential to provide them with their favorite candy, because they wanted to be done with their decision,” she says.

For retailers, the implications of the study could mean that products need to be displayed in a way to ease the decision-making process. “Consumers might sidestep a decision by purchasing a product on a higher shelf or by purchasing a product with more shelf space, as the consumer may believe that the retailer is structuring products in such a way to indicate a ‘status quo’ option,” Otto says.  “Ultimately, it is a matter of preference,” says Otto, “and how much consumers want to endure the burden of decision-making.”