When it comes to making smart decisions, this is the key

Decades ago, ordering takeout or delivery was a relatively simple process. You would break out your collection of local menus, and decide what you were in the mood for that night. Today, however, even something as seemingly simple as dinner can turn into an hours-long process.

Which app should you use to order? There are about 10 to choose from, and each has five different reasons why you should go with them. You’re in the mood for pizza? Okay, here’s 14 different pizza restaurants within a 15-mile radius (except three of those have been closed for two months).

Looking for vegetarian or vegan options? How about restaurants offering discounts or promotions? Who wants free delivery?

With all of these different factors and details to consider it’s no wonder why many people take much longer to make decisions than they used to, and it doesn’t just apply to dinner.

From online shopping to heavier choices such as choosing a college or job, we’re all constantly bombarded with new information intended to sway us in one direction or the other. 

But, does all of that extra information actually lead to better decisions? Doesn’t look like it according to a new study just released by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Researchers at RPI say the inclusion of irrelevant information or unavailable options often leads to people making worse choices.

Generally speaking, companies and advertisers believe that when it comes to extra or superfluous information the rule of free disposal applies. Essentially, free disposal is a theory stating that if a particular detail about a product or offer doesn’t interest a consumer they simply ignore it without wasting any mental energy or time. 

So, imagine Jim is shopping online for a new computer. According to the free disposal theory, if Jim doesn’t know how to use Photoshop, whether or not a laptop for sale comes pre-loaded with that program isn’t going to impact or impede his decision-making process. This study’s findings, though, dispute that approach. 

Researchers say in all likelihood the Photoshop offer will indeed complicate Jim’s shopping experience. At the very least he’ll take longer to make a final decision, pondering whether or not he’ll ever need Photoshop, and at worst he could end up buying the wrong computer for his needs after talking himself into going for the promotional offer. 

“These findings tell us a lot about choice architecture, the design process that goes into the creation of environments where people make decisions,” explains behavioral economist Ian Chadd, an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in a release. “In environments where you have lots of information available, it’s exceptionally important that consumers have the ability to filter out information that they find to be irrelevant.”

All in all, the team at RPI concludes including irrelevant information in a product or service offer leads to people spending more time on decisions, expending much more mental energy, and at least a portion of the time ultimately making the wrong choice.

In fact, the study also found that many people are willing to pay more for a simpler shopping experience.

“This is important insight for policy makers and choice architects alike,” professor Chadd concludes. “The goal should always be to opt towards simpler and more flexible presentation of information, so that consumers can decide for themselves what is and is not irrelevant and then not just ignore it if they see it, but also give them the option not to see it.”

It’s an age-old saying, but it still rings true today. Less is indeed more in many instances, and in this fast-paced information-crazed society we all find ourselves living in, a little bit of simplicity can be a beautiful thing.

The full study can be found here, published in Experimental Economics.