Study finds we often know the best decision, but choose another path instead

Decisions, decisions. What is life but an endless stream of decisions? From major choices like which college to attend or what career to pursue, to more mundane choices like what to have for dinner, our decisions shape who we become. Decision-making is a complex process, and it varies from person to person. Some people find themselves paralyzed by indecision regarding the simplest of choices, while others can decide to pack up and move across the country at a moment’s notice. 

Researchers from Ohio State University set out to examine and better understand the decision-making thought process among a group of volunteers and came to a startling conclusion. People may know the best choice, but in many cases, they choose a different route entirely. 

Why? Us humans are a stubborn bunch, and we tend to go with our guts over even the most obvious of evidence. Additionally, the research team noted that people usually turn to old habits or whatever worked last time during a similar situation, even if there is a better option.

Common sense would suggest that people make poor choices because they don’t know any better. This research disputes that notion; in many instances, people do know better, they just choose to ignore that information.

“In our study, people knew what worked most often. They just didn’t use that knowledge,” comments study co-author Ian Krajbich, an associate professor of psychology and economics at OSU, in a university release.

Professor Krajbich gave an example of his findings in action. Imagine you take “Main Street” home every day from work because it’s the fastest route. Well, yesterday there was a parade on Main Street so you took a detour through Oak Street and actually ended up getting home a few minutes earlier than usual. Today, you’re faced with a decision: return to taking Main Street home, which you know is usually the fastest option, or go for Oak Street one more time because it worked so well yesterday.

Krajbich says, according to the study’s findings, many people would choose Oak Street once again just because it worked well yesterday, despite Main Street being the faster option 99 times out of 100.

This idea can be applied to any decision. How about getting ready for a big date? Do you choose your “old reliable” lucky shirt that’s about 10 years old and seen better days, or go for the brand new shirt you haven’t broken in just yet? The new shirt will almost certainly make a better impression on your date, but many people will choose their favorite shirt purely out of habit or because it impressed on a date five years ago.

“There’s this tension between doing what you should do, at least from a statistical perspective, versus doing what worked out well recently,” Krajbich adds.

To research decision-making, 57 participants were gathered for an experiment. Each person was told to play a fairly simple computer game centered on noticing patterns and using those observations to earn money. The study’s authors tracked each person’s mouse movements to see if they were picking up on the right patterns.

The patterns weren’t all that difficult to detect, and participants played the game a dozen times each. 

“We could tell where they thought the next symbol was going to appear by where they moved the cursor,” Krajbich explains. “And we found that nearly everyone – 56 of the 57 participants – learned the pattern. That was no problem for our participants.”

However, there was a catch; a few of those game rounds were designed so that the pattern that usually resulted in the largest reward didn’t work 10-40% of the time. This was done to see how participants would react. After playing one of those rounds, what would the participant do in the following game? Adhere to the pattern that worked every other time, or change their strategy entirely just because of the most recent game?

Surprisingly, after playing one of the altered rounds, participants only returned to the pattern that worked most often in 20% of instances. So, most people changed their entire approach to the game based off of just one outlier round. 

As far as why people tend to ignore the best options staring them in the face, the researchers can’t say with any degree of certainty. They do, however, theorize that making decisions based on information, data, and knowledge takes more mental energy and planning. It’s easier for people to just go with their gut feelings or what worked most recently.

“It can be hard to judge whether you made a good or bad decision based just on the outcome. We can make a good decision and just get unlucky and have a bad outcome. Or we can make a bad decision and get lucky and have a good outcome,” Krajbich concludes.

Emotions and feelings shouldn’t be entirely ignored when making a decision, but the next time you find yourself facing a fork in the road, be sure to take a moment and consider all the available information objectively. 

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.