Public Decision-Making: When Choices Are Harder

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we make irrational choices when we have to make a decision in public? How can we counter the urge to make unique choices?

Studies show that when we have to make decisions aloud, we tend to choose things we don’t actually want in order to maintain our independence and end up dissatisfied. There are some steps we can take towards making more satisfying choices.

Continue reading to learn how to make more satisfying choices when forced into public decision-making.

Psychology of Public-Decision Making

When we’re forced to do public decision-making, we tend to make very different choices than we would privately. Furthermore, when groups of people make decisions aloud, their choices are much more varied than they would be if they were choosing privately. 

This is because people feel a natural, but irrational, need to protect their individuality by making choices that are different from those already “taken” by others. Subsequently, those who make decisions in private are more likely to be satisfied with their choice, because they’ve made a choice based on preference and not a need to prove something. We make choices based on our need to project a certain image of ourselves, even if those choices are not necessarily the best or most rational choices for us. 

Experiment: The Beer Tasting Menu

At a brewery, experimenters offered free beer samples to 100 tables. There were four different beers on the menu. At the first 50 tables, clients were asked to make their orders out loud. The beers were delivered with a short survey that asked respondents how much they liked the beer they chose, and if they regretted their choice. At the second set of 50 tables, the process was the same, except that clients were asked to write down their orders instead of saying them aloud. 

The experimenters found that the tables that ordered publicly ordered a greater variety of beer for their table—speaking to our need to make individual choices that haven’t yet been taken by others. Furthermore, the tables that ordered out loud were not as satisfied with their choices and expressed a higher rate of regret than those tables that ordered privately—speaking to our tendency to make choices that look good to others, even if they’re not the right choices for us. 

Note that the first person to order out loud usually enjoyed their beer more than everyone at their table—just as much as those who ordered privately. By going first, they were able to announce their decision without the burden of considering others’ choices, like those who ordered privately. 

How Orders Can Reflect Cultural Values

What’s interesting is that the tendency to make public decisions that demonstrate individuality is largely culture-dependent. Whereas the beer experiment exposed the value that Americans place on uniqueness, a similar experiment in a Hong Kong restaurant revealed the value their culture places on conformity. 

In Hong Kong, when the participants were able to order privately, their tables chose a wider variety of dishes. When they ordered out loud, however, many participants opted to order the same thing as the person before them—reducing the variety of different meals ordered and their overall satisfaction with the meal. 

Making More Satisfying Choices

The inherent need to make choices that are yours can hold you back from making rational decisions in a number of areas. Perhaps you’ll simply end up ordering a drink you don’t really want at a bar, or you’ll choose a university you don’t love because a rival of yours already chose your first pick. 

It’s often difficult to know how you’ll act in a state of emotional arousal—which may easily happen when your individuality is called into question. Therefore, it’s helpful to think ahead and put some tools into place to help you make decisions and stick to them. 

  • Know what you want. Make a decision, and commit to sticking with it. If you wait until you hear about the decisions of others before making your choice, you’ll be much more easily influenced. 
  • Announce your decision first. By announcing your choice to others as soon as you make it, you have a “claim” on the decision that protects your individuality, even if someone else makes the same decision as you.

What Human Error Can Teach Us

Many of our practices are based largely on information about how people should act, but it’s clear that we should be more focused on learning how people do act. By doing so, we can find ways—irrational though they may be—to improve our communities and social relationships, make better choices for ourselves, and act with honesty. 

Public Decision-Making: When Choices Are Harder

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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