It Seems So Obvious Now...

Should I buy a gallon of peppermint stick, or just a pint of Cherry Garcia? Or, maybe I should get some of that marginally-more protein-packed Greek frozen yogurt? Italian ice seems refreshing.  On the other hand, maybe I should just bypass this freezer case altogether. In the chilly aisle of the supermarket, with my basket empty, all of these choices seem equally desirable. Some of my options are more virtuous, others more indulgent, but in sum, all of these factors seem pretty equally balanced.

But by the time I get home, unpacking the Ben and Jerry’s AND the Italian Ice into my freezer, I feel quite confident I’ve made the right choice.  The frozen yogurt and Italian ice seem suddenly less appealing; and the thought of being completely absent of frozen confections, even less so.  And it made a lot of sense to load up on these desserts – I’m having friends over tomorrow night (and I almost certainly will not consume this all before then. Probably.).

This moral of this story is, believe it or not, psychological rather than dietary. What I described is referred to as the post-decision spreading of alternatives. Granted, this particular phenomenon could have a snappier name. But it describes, rather vividly, what happens. Before we make a decision (pre-decision), options can seem rather close together in value. Some plusses and minuses for each, so we have to pause and think about each alternative. Post-decision, the different options may begin to “spread out” in value – the option we decided upon inches ahead in appeal; while the other options fall behind. Post-decision, Cherry Garcia pulls ahead of the pack like Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics.

Why does this phenomenon occur? Researchers have often framed it as a protective mechanism against cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance – a topic I’m sure we’ll return to more than once in this blog – refers to that unpleasant state of mind when your actions contradict your beliefs, or when you hold two incompatible thoughts at once. In this case, the dissonance would lie in realizing I rejected an option that did in fact have some good aspects. To avoid dissonance, I downplay the virtues of those things I left behind.

You probably guessed this phenomenon is not limited to frozen desserts. The spreading of alternatives occurs all over the place; when people decide where to live, what job to take, and who to marry. The incentive to value your choice, in these cases, is even greater (how hard would it be to constantly live with the idea that you passed up a potentially great job? Or partner?)

When we seek advice, we are often trying to get input to guide us to choose between several equally attractive (or sometimes equally repulsive) options. It's why we ask you to tell us what you're mulling over when you ask Advice on Sooth. If it were obvious what the best choice was, we would not be asking. Still, after we’ve made a decision, the choice we land on is likely to seem clearly superior.

Does this mean we should be completely cynical about the idea of choosing the “best” course of action, because anything will seem like “best” after we choose it? Not really. First of all, the “spreading of alternatives” – while it’s a well-documented bias – is not such a uniformly powerful force that we are always happy with our decisions. After all, “uh-oh, I think I made a bad decision” is a thought that most of us are all too familiar with.

On the other hand, I think remembering the spreading of alternatives phenomenon can teach us a few things. One, we should not be surprised when we look back and remember struggling with a choice that seems obvious now. We should remember that back then, multiple choices all had some kind of appeal to them. That’s why good old fashioned deliberation and advice are still so valuable.

Two, perhaps we should not be so afraid of regret. After we choose, psychological processes step in to make us comfortable and happy with our choice. You can call it rationalization – or you can think of it as your mind having your back.  We make peace with our choices. When we are talking about most of life’s decisions, this is not a bad thing.  Research on regret backs this up: we anticipate a greater amount of regret in life than we actually end up feeling – but, I’ll leave that for another blog post.

In sum: it’s wise to gather some input, and think things over. But at a certain point, just make a decision. Sooth can help. You’ll probably be happy with it.


This post was written by Sooth Intern, Chase Wilson

Chase is a fifth year Ph.D student in the Applied Social Psychology program at Loyola University Chicago. His research has focused attitudes and cognitive styles, particularly in the context of political psychology. Most recently, his research focuses on open-mindedness and receptivity to new -- potentially contradictory – ideas and opinions.