How To Make Better Choices

Wednesday, 07 March, 2012 04:00Comments

ChoicesBy Steve Martin, CMCT

A recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology has got me thinking about recruitment. But before we talk about that, I’d like you to imagine you are in the market for a new Wide Screen High Definition TV. I’m going to offer you three scenarios and ask you to consider which one you prefer. Ready? OK.

In the first scenario (A) you are shown two televisions that you are potentially interested in and given information about each of the TV’s respective screen sizes and resolution so that you can compare them side by side before deciding which one you prefer. The second Scenario (B) is similar to (A) except that the information about the screen size and resolution is not provided; you are simply comparing the TVs side by side with no additional information. The third, Scenario (C), is the same as (B) but this time instead of comparing both televisions at the same time you review the first, wait a day, and then review the second a day later. Which of the above scenarios do you prefer?

Most people tend to prefer Scenario A and like Scenario C the least. This makes sense because having access to information and the ability to make direct comparisons between options generally leads to better overall decisions - right? Well, according to research conducted by Adelle Yang and her colleagues at Chicago Booth Business School, the answer is maybe not as straightforward as you would think.

In fact in certain situations even though scenario C is the least preferred, those people who adopt it generally end up much more satisfied with their decision. So why might this be?

In explaining these counter-intuitive results Adele Yang from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, who led the studies points to the naturally occurring but often undetected difference between how people evaluate options when they are choosing compared to when they are consuming.

When choosing options people will typically be in what is called a Joint Evaluation (JE) mode. Put simply they will line up alternatives and compare attributes, benefits and features side by side. However once a decision is made people tend to experience their choice in isolation, or what is called Single Evaluation (SE) mode.          

Studies have shown that decisions made in Joint Evaluation mode and those made in Single Evaluation mode can yield remarkably different outcomes (See Hsee & Loewenstein for a review).

For example in one study,  participants were asked to decide between two dictionaries - one in brand new condition and containing 10,000 entries another containing 20,000 entries but with a torn cover. Those that evaluated them side by side preferred the brand-new fewer-entry option but those that reviewed them separately with a time gap in between preferred the less perfect larger-entry option.

The fact that decisions between two or more choices can be different simply due to whether we evaluate and compare them side by side or separately with a sufficient break in between is an important consideration both when buying and supplying. 

As an example Dr. Robert Cialdini warns of such a situation by pointing to the unethical comparisons that certain realtors will employ when attempting to influence purchasers. By first driving through a largely unattractive area of town, viewing properties that are wholly unsuitable, potential homeowners come to see as even more attractive properties that would otherwise be just acceptable if they had experienced them in isolation. As buyers, therefore it becomes important to be fully aware of the environmental situations and cues that may be unduly influencing our evaluations.

When looking to ethically persuade others these studies offer an additional insight. Rather than immediately providing detailed product specifications in the early stages of product presentations or customer interactions perhaps we should instead adopt an ‘experience first followed by specification and information’ approach.

All of which brings me to recruitment. We all know about, and have perhaps even experienced, an organization carrying out detailed side by side comparisons of potential recruits. This might even include pitting potential candidates against each other in assessment centers, most often conducted at the same time. This seems like an example of Joint Evaluation (JE) which may work out just fine. But one does wonder whether there is a case to be made for adopting a Single Evaluation approach. This might mean meeting shortlisted candidates on different days and coming to a decision based solely on the experience of meeting. Once an initial decision is made then this could be validated by looking more deeply at that candidate’s attributes.

The data doesn’t allow me to speculate further, but I’m sure that our readers will have plenty to say about their own experiences. 

Discussion Comments:

  • How do you think we form the most effective recruitment strategy?  Single or Joint Evaluation?
  • Aside from recruitment (for instance as suppliers and buyers) which comparison strategies have worked well for you or have been used on you?


Yang,  A, Hsee, C.K., Liu, Y. & Zhang, L. The supremacy of singular subjectivity: Improving decision quality by removing objective specifications and direct comparisons. Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 393–404

Hsee, C. K. (1996) Attribute Evaluability: Implications for Joint-Separate Evaluation Reversals and Beyond. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 67, No. 3, 1996.

Cialdini, R.B., (2009) Influence – Science and Practice. Allyn & Bac

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