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Psychology of How We Make Choices | Literature Review

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Published: Fri, 17 Aug 2018

In the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a Tilburg University Study known as Set-Fit Effects in Choice by Ellen R. K. Evers, Yoel Inbar, and Marcel Zeelenberg in April of 2014 investigated how the fit of an item in groups affects how people make decisions. In four experiments, this paper studies the question of how we make choices. It argues that when given a choice between a superior selection and a less superior selection, by intuition we would always choose the superior option. However, when things fit together in a set, we disregard quality and choose the set that is more fitted. The example the author uses in the article is a choice between two pens; one considered a “good” pen and the other considered a “bad” pen. When given a choice between the two single pens in a test called an individual choice condition, subjects chose the better pen 78.8% of the time. However, when given a choice between a group of pens in which the majority matched the pen of lesser quality and mismatched that of the higher quality pen, the decision was split 50-50. People were less attracted to the “good” pen when it did not fit into the set group. In a concept known as the Gestalt principle, sets that are better fitting are more pleasing, “all else being equal, similar stimuli are more likely to be grouped together than dissimilar stimuli.”1 Because the “bad” pen matched the group of pens it was presented with, it was perceived as more pleasing.

In three follow up experiments, the researchers found each study resulted in similar data. People were continually more inclined to choose groups based on fit rather than quality. One challenge the researchers faced was to explain why people prefer similarity under certain conditions and variety under others. The journal addresses this issue by approaching the study from an angle that could challenge the collected data. For example, some people seek variety in certain instances explaining why the unexpected and mismatched group is chosen.

In a couple of the studies, the researchers asked subjects to explain why they made the choice they did. It was observed that it took longer to explain one’s decision than to actually make it. Many responded with “I don’t know” while others guessed that it was because the group they chose seemed to fit better together. In a real life example, a Dutch publisher changed the design of a series of books by changing the convers, paper, and typography in an attempt to attract more readers. Instead, existing costumers were angry at the mismatched designs within the series and he ultimately made both the new and old covers available. This relates the study to real life experiences and supports their conclusion that people are attracted to sets that “fit”, even on a larger scale such as advertising and sales.

In this report, the researchers began with an overview of the purpose of their research and provided background information in order for the reader to understand the reason behind the importance of the study. They then went on to briefly explain each experiment, providing procedural information and collected data, followed by a discussion concerning the conclusions drawn. Finally, the report ended with a tie to the outside world, allowing the reader to adapt the knowledge learned from the report into real life circumstance, better cementing the importance and applicability of the research conducted.

In a 2014 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Dunning and Joanna E. Anderson of Cornell University and Thomas Schlösser, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Detlef Fetchenhauer of the University of Cologne examined trust in social interactions in a study titled Trust at Zero Acquaintance: More a Matter of Respect Than Expectation of Reward. In this study the idea of trust between strangers is evaluated. The researchers begin the article by giving background information about the purpose of the subject, addressing how trust is a vital component in all forms of relationships. For example, marriages and friendships cannot last without trust, eBay and farmers markets thrive on trust, and even governments require a level of trust between citizens and officials. Then they go on to say that in order to be successful, people must have a certain level of trust for strangers, “Nations displaying more trust among strangers tend to have higher rates of economic growth.”2 However, many people contradict this idea and state that excessive trust in strangers is irrational and dangerous. In order to study the patterns of trust amongst strangers, the researchers used a paradigm called The Trust Game. In this game, subjects are either given money or told to bring money and go through a series of options allowing them to give certain amounts of money to another participant with the possibility of receiving money based on the stranger’s decisions. The subjects are anonymous and never meet each other, so this experiment is based solely on an individual’s perception of complete strangers. Whether or not a person decides to give more money to strangers or not mirrors their trust in others. The behavior in this game correlates to everyday acts of trust such as loaning money to a friend. The researchers go on to address the idea that people trust in order to gain something from the relationship, not just to trust someone out of the good of their heart. This means that people will only trust with the expectation of a future pay off, “A choice to trust another person should not be automatically taken as a statement of interpersonal optimism at the cognitive level.”2 Trust is also viewed as an obligation in certain social interactions, meaning that a person may not want to trust but feel it is their job to trust another person in such cases. In former studies, researchers found that subjects tend to be more inclined to trust a stranger when they are interacting with another subject referred to as a “partner” rather than an “opponent”. The relationship built calls for trust between the two “partners” based on social norm. The researchers go on to discuss the idea of social versus moral norms and their relationship with trust. Social norms are external influences while moral norms are involved with internal and personal views and expectations. The idea of this discussion was to determine which “norm” the pattern of excessive trust follows. No evidence of a descriptive norm was found, however the idea of want versus should was relevant in the results. The analysis revealed that the idea that a person should trust a stranger was a major factor at play in the decision making process.

In this report, the researchers began with an overview of excessive trust among strangers in different social situations. They ran and evaluated different experiments, developing further and more specific questions that delved deeper into the subject of trust and the influences, causes, and effects of why or why not one may decide to trust another individual in different social scenes.

In a January 2014 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Annika Scholl and Kai Sassenberg studied the decision making process in an article titled Better Know When (Not) to Think Twice: How Social Power Impacts Prefactual Thought. This report looks at how uncertainty and asking yourself “what if” affects decision making. In many instances decision-making is an instantaneous process. The examples given include firefighters who might have to make an emergency decision without much thought and bank managers who might have to make investment decisions without much background information. An example representing the alternative to these quick decision-making circumstances could be an organizational decision maker who might spend time and use their prior knowledge about employees’ needs in order to create new company policies. In all of these cases, the power holder not only creates consequences for him or herself, but their decisions also affect the other people involved. In this study, the researchers tested the impact of prefactual knowledge in high social power versus low social power. Prefactual thought can be both beneficial as well as detrimental. Some decisions need to be made instantaneously while others need thought. One experiment addressed decision making based on minimal information, giving subjects little to know prior knowledge. Subjects were then assigned power roles, employer versus employee. Employees would come up with solutions while employers would evaluate the ideas they were presented. In this experiment, subjects’ decision making process was coded, and prefactual thoughts were identified using phrases such as “if only…,” “what if…,” and “I could…”. The results in this experiment showed that, as predicted, the employees holding more power used less prefactual thoughts. A follow up experiment was used to find a condition in which the correlation between power and prefactual thought might disappear. In this experiment, power-holders were presented two different situations: one where prefactual thinking is not likely to benefit and one where it would likely be beneficial. The results showed that power-holders and non power-holders engaged in similar prefactual though processes when it would likely be beneficial.

The researchers go on to discuss how power is, in most cases, correlated to the decision making process in a way that higher power is associated with less thought. However, they do address how certain cases require extensive thought and these exceptions involve high power-holders to evaluate each decision excessively.

Like the previous articles, the researchers begin with a broad question and slowly dive deeper into the material depending on which direction the results of each step take them. They allow the research to guide the study and continually ask questions to create a well-rounded piece.

Works Cited

  1. Dunning, David, Joanna E. Anderson, Thomas Schlösser, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Detlef Fetchenhauer. “Trust at Zero Acquaintance: More a Matter of Respect Than Expectation of Reward.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology107.1 (2014): 122-41. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
  2. Evers, Ellen R. K., Yoel Inbar, and Marcel Zeelenberg. “Set-Fit Effects in Choice.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143.2 (2014): 504-09. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
  3. Scholl, Annika, and Kai Sassenberg. “Better Know When (Not) to Think Twice: How Social Power Impacts Prefactual Thought.”Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin(2014): 1-12.Sage Journals. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

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