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Decision-making: research shows what happens when we wait for “something better”

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Hollie Richardson
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How to make a decision.

Terrible at making decisions? A new study has found just how much our expectations drop while taking the time to decide on something.

Thanks to the ’always-on’ culture that has developed in this digital age, we’re presented with choices every single day. From restaurants to holidays, careers and relationships: constant decision-making can be overwhelming. And one important question that applies to each of these choices is: should I decide on something right now or wait for something better to come along? 

People often find it difficult to make decisions when options are presented one after another rather than simultaneously. This becomes even more difficult when time is limited and an offer that you turn down now may no longer be available later.

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We’ve all been there: wondering if you should book that weekend away or wait to see if you can get it for cheaper; questioning whether or not to continue with a new relationship or call it quits and get back on that dating app; pondering a career change or sticking to what you know. 

Now, new research has given us an insight into the science behind our thinking here.

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Researchers at the University of Zurich analysed a study of people to find out what happens when we take our time to decide on something.

Christiane Baumann, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, explained the way people think as being like: “The price that I am prepared to pay increases every day by the same amount. That is, the further along I am in the process, the higher the price I will accept.”

This principle can be applied not only to purchases, but also situations such as choice of an employer or a romantic partner: “At the beginning perhaps my standards are high. But over time they may lower so that in the end I may settle for someone I would have rejected in the beginning.”

Basically, the longer we leave it to make a decision, the more we’re prepared to gamble and our standards can drop.

decision making
Making decisions: the longer we leave it, the more we're prepared to risk.

The study used simulated purchasing situations with up to 200 participants in each test in order to find out what strategies people use.

In one test, the participants were told to try to book a flight ticket as cheaply as possible. They were given 10 offers one after the other in which the price fluctuated; meanwhile the fictional departure date was getting nearer and nearer.

In another test, people had to get the best possible deal on products such as groceries or kitchen appliances, with the fluctuating prices taken from an online shop.

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Baumann says the participants used a “linear threshold model”. While it is easy for a computer to find the best-possible process for making decisions of this type, the human brain is “not capable of carrying out the complex calculations that are required, so humans use a rather simplified strategy.”

Although this might not help with the next big decision you make, it’s fascinating to know what’s going on in your brain – and question just how much you’re willing to risk.

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…