We all have moments where we cannot seem to make a decision as the options seem to be equivalent.
The choices may pertain to deciding which color of shirt to purchase, voting for a particular political candidate or deciding where to go for vacation.
Researchers have learned that whatever the choice you decide, this difficult decision will paradoxically influence your preferences for an extended duration.
For example, you’re in a store, trying to choose between similar shirts, one blue and one green. You don’t feel strongly about one over the other, but eventually you decide to buy the green one.
You leave the store and a market researcher asks you about your purchase and which shirt you prefer. Chances are that you’d say you prefer the green one, the shirt you actually chose.
Researchers have found that it doesn’t really matter what the decision may involve, we come to place more value on the options we chose and less value on the options we rejected.
One way of explaining this effect is through the idea of cognitive dissonance. Making a selection between two options that we feel pretty much the same about creates a sense of dissonance — after all, how can we choose if we don’t really prefer one option over the other?
Re-evaluating the options after we’ve made our choice may be a way of resolving this dissonance.
This phenomenon has been demonstrated in numerous studies, but the studies have only examined preference change shortly after participants make their decision. Existing research doesn’t address whether these changes in preference are actually stable over time.
In a new study, researcher Tali Sharot, Ph.D., of University College London and her colleagues examined whether choice-induced changes in preference are fleeting or long-lasting.
The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
As part of the investigation, researchers asked 39 undergraduate participants to rate the desirability of 80 different vacation destinations, rating how happy they think they would be if they were to vacation at that location.
They were then presented with pairs of similar vacation destinations and asked to choose which destination they would prefer. The participants rated the destinations again immediately after making their choices and once more three years later.
To test whether the act of personally selecting an option makes a difference, the researchers looked at participants’ preferences when the participants made the choices themselves and when a computer instructed the participants’ choices.
Investigators found that the act of choosing between two similar options can lead to enduring changes in preference. Participants rated vacation destinations as more desirable both immediately after choosing them and again three years later.
This change only occurred, however, if they had made the original choice themselves. The researchers observed no change in participants’ preferences when the computer instructed their choices.
Sharot and her colleagues argue that this effect is robust and enduring and has implications for actions related to economics, marketing, and even interpersonal relationships.
As Sharot points out, for example, repeatedly endorsing a particular political party may entrench this preference for a long period of time. Similarly, reliving or refreshing a vow to a partner may reinforce your choice to be in a relationship with the particular individual.