3 Ways to Avoid “Decision Quicksand”

From the lecture series: How Ideas Spread

By Jonah Berger, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

We often get sucked into trivial decisions. Here are 3 ways to avoid the painful phenomenon of “decision quicksand”.

Image of 2 choices: Avoid decision quicksand

Have you ever agonized over which restaurant entrée to order? Which shade of white to paint the kitchen? Which flight to purchase? If so, you’re not alone. You’ve been caught in something my colleague and I call “Decision Quicksand.” Not only does it lead to wasted time, it also makes people unhappy and less satisfied with choice.

This article originally appeared in Professor Jonah Berger’s personal blog

It starts simply enough. You’re choosing a vacation destination or a restaurant to go for dinner. You’re relaxed, happy, and ready to knock it out. It’s a decision, sure, but a pretty trivial one. You think you’ll quickly pick something and move on. Five minutes at the most.

But then you begin comparing options. The Italian place has great food, but didn’t someone say that new Greek place was worth checking out? And what about that Sushi place you like? It’s close by, but you had to wait a while last time to be seated. So you go back-and-forth. You compare each dimension one by one, weighing the benefits of each.

This is a transcript from the video series How Ideas Spread. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Soon you’re starting to get frustrated. Each option has positives and negatives. Both seem good in some ways and bad in others. Suddenly a choice that seemed relatively unimportant starts to feel more weighty and consequential. What if you get it wrong? Will the meal be terrible? Will you wish you went somewhere else?

Before you know it you’ve spent 45 minutes scanning menus online…and your stomach is starting to grumble. You’re struggling and struggling but the harder you work the more you get sucked in. You’re trapped and you can’t seem to find a way out.

image of man in store deciding between two items: decision quicksand
Unimportant decisions frequently end up being more difficult than we expect.

If something like this has happened to you, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you are bad at decision making. Decision quicksand happens to everyone. The reason it happens is less about you and more about the situation.

Learn more about the way we naturally process information

We expect important decisions, like whether to switch jobs or buy a house, to be difficult. After all, they’re important. They require, and deserve, careful deliberation and weighing of alternatives.

We don’t expect the same difficulty, however, for less important decisions. Which entrée to choose? Which flight to pick? That should be easy! Just pick and go. Like a walk in the park.

But unimportant decisions frequently end up being more difficult than we expect. Often there are many options to sift through, or conflicting tradeoffs on different dimensions. And this unexpected difficulty leads us to think that the decision must be more important than we originally thought. If the decision is this difficult it MUST be worth my time and effort.

Learn more about the four key principles of human memory—simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, and credibility

So we devote more energy to the decision, collect more information, and sink deeper into the quicksand. We start spending more and more effort and the decision comes to seem more and more important. We’ve spent an hour on a trivial decision and we can’t figure out a way to escape.

Want to avoid the quicksand? Here are 3 simple ways out.

  1. Pre-Commit. Decide how much time you want to spend in advance. I’m going to pick a flight in 10 minutes, period. And set a timer. Once it goes off, you have to choose whichever option you were looking at last.
  2. Take A Break. Decision quicksand leads us to be so narrowly focused on a choice that we think the world revolves around that decision. But few choices are that important. Stepping away for a few minutes and doing something else will provide some needed perspective and help you see whether a particular decision is really worth the effort.
  3. Satisfice. People often maximize, trying to find the best possible option. But in many cases, any of the options would make you quite satisfied. You’d have a wonderful time in either Disney World or Hawaii. So stop deliberating and move on with your life. Flip a coin. Either option is great.

Learn more about when and why people avoid following the crowd

Next time you find yourself hopelessly stuck in an unimportant decision, stop struggling for a moment and take a step back. What you thought was a big deal probably isn’t.

Common Questions About Making Decisions

Q: What is the process for making decisions?

There are five major steps to making good decisions: Identify a goal, collect information to use in comparison of outcomes, evaluate all consequences, make the decision, and follow through with the decision you chose.

Q: Are there different types of decision-making?

It is generally thought that the three types of decision-making are tiered into personal decisions, business decisions, and consumer decisions.

Q: What are decision-making styles?

There are four styles of decision-making that affect every type of decision: behavioral, analytical, conceptual and directive.

Q: What is meant by routine decision-making?

Routine decision-making is generally meant as the small things: the basic decisions we make day to day with little involvement such as whether to read the newspaper or what to have for lunch.

This article was updated on 9/5/2019

Keep Reading
Behavioral Economics: How “Triggers” Affect Your Decisions
Conscientiousness: The Big Five Personality Types Explained
How to Use Reverse Brainstorming to Generate Fresh Ideas