Why are some decisions so difficult

Question to the brain

Dr. Benjamin Scheibehenne, business psychologist at the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel: If the choice becomes difficult, it can be down to the decision-maker or the choice.

Individuals may find it difficult if they don't know exactly what they want. For example, he is looking for his dream partner. That is rather abstract. But if he then actually has to decide between two or more candidates, it is important to be clear about which characteristics are important in detail: A great body? A sunny disposition? A feeling of security?

Conversely, it becomes difficult when someone knows what they want, but this is not compatible with reality. For example, one would like to buy a car that should be optically and technically “top”, but also not exceed the financial framework. A conflict quickly arises here: quality or price? The more important the individual aspects and the more serious the consequences - such as financial security versus security for life and limb - the more difficult it is to weigh up. It can go so far that a person cannot or does not want to make a decision or even becomes angry.

Another common consideration is that the more choices, the harder it is to make a decision. One speaks of the “too much choice” effect. Together with our working group, we have evaluated many studies that deal with this problem and have also carried out our own investigations. A typical experiment looks like this: Subjects are allowed to choose from a number of different options, such as sweets, wines or charitable organizations, the number of which varies. We then check whether you can come to a decision and, if so, how long it will take you. In addition, we ask the test subjects how difficult it was for them to choose and how satisfied they are with the result.

In fact, the test subjects find the task more difficult the more alternatives they have. Accordingly, they hesitate longer. However, this usually does not affect the likelihood that a decision will be made at all, nor does it affect satisfaction.

It is different if the test subjects are asked to justify their choice. Why are you donating to a specific organization and not another? This shows that the more options, the less donations are made. The choice is so tortured that some no longer want to make a decision. The justification requires several aspects to be weighed, especially since there were many similar choices. Which of the three environmental protection organizations is the best? Where does the money go directly to a project?

And actually it's no wonder that you skid here. Neuroscientists have found that difficult decision-making questions place greater demands on our thinking organs. In addition to the frontal lobe, the anterior cingulum, which is used, among other things, in conflict situations and for risk prediction, is particularly active. And: the more options we weigh, the more the working memory that stores and processes the information is required. But that has a limited storage capacity - the more complex the selection, the slower and more error-prone the decision-making process becomes.

Recorded by Stefanie Reinberger