How ‘The Road Not Taken’ May Be Undermining Your Choices

Who is more content with their spouse? The couple who met through the traditional dating scene — getting serious with one partner at a time and rejecting anyone who did not meet their criteria before settling on each other? Or the couple with a semi-arranged marriage where they were presented with a handful of pre-selected men or women to pick from?

This question intrigued Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner and colleagues Baba Shiv, a Stanford marketing professor who had a semi-arranged marriage, and Sheena Iyengar, a management professor at Columbia who met her spouse through the traditional dating scene but came from an arranged marriage background. “We couldn’t use the marriage choice context for [a research study] because it would be very difficult,” Iyengar says. “So we decided to look at the consumer choice context.” For example, would the more satisfied consumers be people who went from store to store, trying out a number of different products over an extended period of time, or the ‘one-stop shoppers’ who made a decision with all of the options in front of them?

In a series of experiments, the researchers studied how the way options were presented to consumers affected the feelings they ultimately had about a particular choice. Their findings are outlined in the paper,”Eternal Quest for the Best: Sequential (vs. Simultaneous) Option Presentation Undermines Choice Commitment,” which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Mogilner adds that it was particularly important to highlight the sequential option (or the “dating one by one”) side of the debate because very little research had been done on this type of choosing: Most consumer choice research focuses on simultaneously presented choice sets. “While this research was spurred by finding a life partner, we know there are lots of other important decisions that are presented sequentially, such as shopping for a house, deciding whom to hire or choosing what job to take,” Mogilner notes.

After looking at individual selections in experiments that asked some participants to choose from a range of options presented all at once and others to pick from selections offered one at a time, the researchers concluded that the couples who came together through semi-arranged marriages should — in theory — be more content. “Whether choosing a piece of gourmet chocolate, a nail polish color or a bottle of Italian red wine, individuals presented with their options one at a time end up less satisfied with, and ultimately less committed to, their chosen option than individuals presented with their options all at once,” the researchers write.

But why do people feel more satisfied with, and committed to, a decision when they see all of the potential routes at one time? According to Mogilner and her colleagues, the key driver is hope — in particular, the negative implications of hoping too much. “To my knowledge, this is one of the first” studies to look at the negative side of hope, Iyengar says. “We usually think of hope as a good thing.”

Of Chocolate and Wine, Hope and Regret

In the first experiment, 87 individuals were presented with five different gourmet chocolate options, either sequentially or simultaneously, and asked to pick their favorite. Those who tasted the chocolate sequentially were allowed to try each variety before being asked to choose one. The researchers measured the role of hope in the decision by giving half of each group a 10-digit number to remember during the tasting, with the theory that saddling them with a “high cognitive load” would limit their capacity to conjure up the idea of a sixth, even better chocolate that might make them regret their initial choice. The other participants were asked to memorize a two-digit number — or a “low cognitive load” — with the idea that they would have plenty of brain power left to consider the possibility that a tastier candy was out there somewhere.

Afterward, participants were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their choice of chocolate, and to answer questions designed to measure the levels of hope, fear and regret that resulted from the experience. Finally, in order to gauge participants’ level of commitment to their choice, the entire group was given the option to change their original selection, either to a type of candy they had sampled during the tasting or to an option they hadn’t tried yet.

According to the paper, participants who sampled the chocolates one by one and were given the two-digit number to remember exhibited greater hope that there was a better choice out there than people who were given all of their options simultaneously, no matter what type of number the latter group was given to memorize. Participants who tasted the candy sequentially but were asked to remember the 10-digit number also reported lower levels of hope, lending credence to the researchers’ theory that having to memorize the number would hinder their ability to dream up a different option.

On the other hand, participants’ level of commitment to their choice was divided along the lines of cognitive load. Of those who had to remember the two-digit number, half of the sequential choosers and 40% of the simultaneous choosers opted to switch to the untested option. Among participants given the 10-digit number, just 13% of sequential choosers and 17% of simultaneous choosers decided to switch. “These results suggest that when sequential choosers have the cognitive resources available to imagine a better option, they will,” the researchers write. “They will, in turn, be more likely to switch to that unknown option, hoping it will be better.”

The second experiment built on the first by directly manipulating whether participants felt hope for a better option while making their choice. Unlike the first study, people who were presented with the chocolates one by one could only pick a particular type when it was in front of them — there was no going back to select something they had already tasted. In addition to the lab study, the researchers also conducted a pilot field experiment studying nail salon patrons choosing colors for a manicure.

When the nail salon customers were offered the chance to take home either a free bottle of the color they had selected for their manicure or the chance to pick a different polish, 83% of simultaneous choosers stuck with their chosen option, while only 43% of the strict sequential choosers did so. In the modified chocolate study, half of the 198 participants were told to reflect on a time when they felt hope before they tasted the chocolates, while the other group was asked to ponder a neutral topic. Those two groups were divided in half, with some tasting all the chocolates simultaneously and others doing so one by one.

According to the researchers, provoking feelings of hope in participants dominated the way they felt about choosing a type of chocolate. Notably, the simultaneous and sequential choosers who were made to feel hope reported equally low levels of satisfaction with their original choice, and nearly half switched to the unknown chocolate option, with even more doing so in the simultaneous option group. In the neutral group, however, one-third of sequential choosers switched to the untested chocolate, compared to only 4% of simultaneous choosers. “These results suggest that the low commitment exhibited among sequential choosers is driven by increased feeling of hope,” the researchers write.

The final experiment was a field study conducted as a wine tasting. The researchers measured the extent to which the 129 participants felt hope when making a choice, and further “honed in on the role of hope” by also measuring regret and including both types of sequential conditions — i.e., people who were presented with the options one at a time and allowed to taste each wine before picking their favorite or those who could only choose a particular wine when it was in front of them — along with a simultaneous group, in which all of the glasses were presented at the same time. The experiment followed the same pattern as the first two: sampling, selecting a favorite, filling out a survey, and then deciding whether to stick with the chosen option, switch to one of the previously sampled wines or switch to an unknown option.

All sequential choosers were much less committed to their chosen option than those who were presented with all of the wines simultaneously, the researchers note. But only those sequential choosers restricted to picking a type of wine when it was in front of them were more likely to feel regret about their choice.

“What was interesting was that when we held everything constant — when the sequential and simultaneous choosers had all of the same information available to them — when they made their choice, something as simple as how it was presented to them influenced levels of satisfaction,” Mogilner says.

The Price of Satisfaction

Looking at the results of all the experiments, the researchers found that there was no pattern to the product selections of any one group, leading them to conclude that it wasn’t that some participants ended up objectively worse off than the others — sequential choosers experienced those outcomes as being less desirable because their mind stayed focused on “the road not taken,” or the option that remained undiscovered.

Mogilner and Iyengar say it was intriguing to test people’s reaction to such frivolous items as wine and chocolate, where participants likely didn’t come in with any strong preconceived perceptions of a particular option. But they add that the results do have broader applications. Notably, the research supports presenting options simultaneously, as retailers would prefer that consumers don’t regret a choice and ultimately decide to return an item, or communicate to other consumers their lack of satisfaction with a purchase. “While all the instances in the paper are fairly trivial, the implications of simultaneous versus sequential choice can run across all types of decisions,” Iyengar notes.

But can firms change their policies and practices to turn decisions involving sequentially presented options into choices where all of the possibilities are shown simultaneously? According to Mogilner, such an adjustment is easiest for online retailers that have full control over how their product assortments are presented. “Our findings suggest that options should be presented together on the same web page, rather than on separate pages,” she states.

Mogilner adds that the paper also sheds light on just how harmful hoping can be. When one is in a sequential choosing situation, he or she should have confidence in making a decision and stop wondering “what if” — whether it’s a new home, job or even a spouse.

“This shows the detrimental effect of continuing to wonder what else is out there, and how it undermines satisfactions with the choices you make.” Mogilner says. “Instead of comparing your chosen option with an imagined perfect option, compare you chosen option with the other options you’ve seen.”

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