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Dr. Aner Sela

"Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In"

Common sense and logic dictate that people take a long time to make important decisions. But why do people take as much time or even longer deciding the most trivial of matters?

A study co-authored by Dr. Aner Sela offers an interesting suggestion: "Decision Quicksand." The premise is described in the article "Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In." The article, co-authored by Penn Assistant Professor of Marketing Jonah Berger, is scheduled to appear in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Sela, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Warrington College of Business Administration, proposes that the brain makes an inference when a trivial decision takes an unexpectedly long time. Because the decision is taking so long to make, a person believes the decision is an important one even if it's as rudimentary as selecting which type of toothpaste to buy at the grocery store. Sela and Berger named this phenomenon "Decision Quicksand."

"Though they may not be as consequential, unimportant decisions are just as often plagued by incidental factors that make them difficult," the authors wrote. "Ironically, this process is more likely to occur for unimportant decisions because people expect them to be easier."

One of the experiments Sela and Berger performed was asking two groups of people to select an airline flight. One group was given the flight options in a large, high-contrast font that was easier to read while the other group was given information in a small, low-contrast front that was difficult to read.

"Not surprisingly, the hard-to-read font led to increased deliberation time, as people were forced to decipher their alternatives," Sela said. "What was more interesting is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance: The flight options now seemed like a weighty decision. Moreover, this effect was strongest when people were initially led to believe that the choice of flights was actually unimportant!" Sela said the study showed that people can fall into a pattern of taking a long time to make a decision even if there is a hint of difficulty involved. That hint of difficulty "may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant," Sela said. "Decision Quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems the more we struggle."

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