BASEL, Switzerland — Life is full of decisions. In a way, an individual is nothing if not the sum of his or her choices. Some are simple and straightforward, while others can be complex and overwhelming. Certain people tend to be particularly decisive, but many others struggle with day-to-day decision making, let alone major life-changing choices. If you find yourself struggling with a big decision that offers multiple options, researchers from Basel University have a helpful suggestion: narrow your choices down to the two most promising options. According to their findings, that will help you make a decision as quickly as possible.
Originally, the team at Basel University’s Center for Decision Neuroscience set out to formulate the best way to make quick yet also efficient decisions. To answer this conundrum, they gathered a group of participants and measured their attention levels when faced with a decision by recording their eye movements with an eye tracker.
Over the course of two experimental sessions, 139 people were asked to choose between three different food options that changed over various rounds. As the research team recorded eye movements during the experiment, they discovered that most of the participants weren’t spreading their attention out equally across all three options. Instead, they were focusing much more on the two most appealing food options.
This approach universally led to faster decisions; because participants easily dismissed the least appealing option, they were able to choose between their top two options much faster and with less stress.
Prior studies on decision-making had usually presented subjects with only two options, but in recent years scientists have often turned to experiments with three options. This shift has occurred because many researchers have noticed that people generally second guess themselves or struggle with a decision much more often when faced with more than two related options. For instance, an individual who originally selected chicken instead of pasta may end up changing their mind if another vegetarian option is introduced, such as a salad. Then, the individual may find themselves suddenly in the mood for some pasta.
These little nuances in human decision-making may seem trivial at first, but fully understanding the complexity of these processes could have major implications regarding decision theories in various fields like economics, neuroscience, and psychology. With this in mind, the study’s authors are already working on a mathematical model that describes and details the relationship between eye movements and subsequent preference formations when an individual is faced with numerous choices.
“One goal of our research is to understand how people act in a world with ever more options, as you have with online stores or large shopping malls,” says study leader Professor Sebastian Gluth in a release. “Usually, we don’t have to choose between an apple and an orange – but between tens or hundreds of different apples and oranges.”
The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.