Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The weight of waiting

February 14th, 2011

So, you’re making a choice between the tried-and-true and something new. Perhaps it’s your brand of toothpaste, perhaps it’s your political affiliation, perhaps it’s your spouse. You have to make a decision right now, so you do.

Second thoughts before the jumpNow imagine another scenario in which you have the same choice. You can make it now or think about it for a while, and you choose to think about it. Eventually, you make your decision.

It’s not surprising that those two decisions might be different. People do change their minds with time. What’s interesting is that delaying a decision consistently inclines your choice toward the new, non-default choice.

This was recently shown in a fascinating study by Niels van de Ven, Tom Gilovich and Marcel Zeelenberg. University students were given a choice of two similar articles for a reading assignment. One article had been assigned in previous years, while the other was new. Some students were asked to choose one immediately, some were asked to choose at the end of the class, and some were given the option to choose immediately or wait until the end of the class.

Their preferences were noticeably different. Among those asked to choose immediately, 72% picked the old article. Among those asked to choose later, 80% picked the old article. But among those given the option of when to choose, only 42% picked it. Another experiment produced similar results.

Van de Ven, Gilovich and Zeelenberg theorized that this effect occurs because we need to explain to ourselves why we didn’t decide immediately. We assume it must be a sign of doubt, which calls into question all our options, but particularly the established one. As they wrote, “Individuals are likely to reason, explicitly or implicitly, ‘Why don’t I feel comfortable with this [status quo] option? I must have doubts about it.'” A third experiment confirmed that increasing their sense of doubt made study participants less likely to choose an established option in favour of a new one.

There’s other evidence, too. One analysis of poll results found that in 82% of elections that included an incumbent candidate, the majority of voters who were undecided before the election chose to vote for the challenger rather than the incumbent (an effect called the “incumbent rule”). This might also contribute to the phenomenon in which waiting for information makes that information seem more important in making a decision.

You can see how this might be used if you’re asking people to choose between an established option and an alternative. Request an immediate choice if you want to increase support for the established option; allow people time to think about the decision if you want to increase support for the alternative.

Remember, though, that this effect only influences the undecided. Don’t bother asking your kid if he’d like to think about it for a minute before deciding whether to try the icky-looking new vegetable. That kid is most likely not undecided – but he’ll claim to be still thinking about it until the heat death of the universe. What a shame he can’t have any now that entropy’s eaten it first.

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