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Does treating people like adults really mean giving them more options?

17th Mar 2015

People are generally the best judges of their own preferences, and know the most about their own context. Further, autonomous choice is an important aspect of intrinsic motivation (1). Where people feel they have a choice, they are more likely to act, and more likely to have or develop an intrinsic motivation to continue the action.

A logical conclusion is therefore that in order to achieve a particular outcome, we should provide people with as many ways of taking the action we want as possible—so they can choose what suits them best, and experience a sense of autonomy.

The pleasure and pain of having options

However, behavioural scientists studying consumer choice have found that although people are attracted to choice sets with large numbers of alternatives, they may be less likely to actually make a choice the more options they have (2). At some point, the effort required to optimise choice outweighs the benefit of the extra options, and increases people’s propensity to opt for the simple or familiar (3) (which may be no action at all).

Making choices has also been found to be ego-depleting: it can reduce persistence at subsequent effortful tasks (4). So, say the scientists, if you spend twenty minutes trying to figure out which of the seventy brands of butter or margarine are right for your family, it’s going to be more difficult to keep walking past the confectionary aisle and not stop in for a gander.

However, the choices presented in lab experiments generating these findings have often been intentionally stressful1. It is likely there are choice sets where the marginal benefit of having the choice set will still outweigh the marginal cognitive effort. For each person, and each choice, there will be a hypothetical optimal number of choices to induce both autonomous choice and satisfaction with that choice.

An implication of this in adult learning is that we assume that giving people more options for courses is better—in most colleges, people are asked when they sign up what level they think they are. Do people find this choice stressful? Would a better model be to offer foundational maths and English as single sign-up options and allocate people once they arrive? Tutors are likely to be better positioned to know what level learners are operating at, and this reserves learners’ mental energy for choosing campus and delivery options, making plans to fit classes in around their lives, and figuring out how to get there.

Or, perhaps a sign-up form where learners had an “I don’t know” option, which offered them reassurance that the college would help them figure it out. This could be the default, or it could be a positive choice.

The question is what choices it is useful for learners to make and which choices they are likely to find stressful. We need to find out which is which, and empower learners to make the former choices, while freeing them from the latter.

[1] Deci, Edward, and Richard Ryan. 2010. Self-Determination. Corsini Encyclopaedia of Psychology. 1-2.

[2] Iyengar, Sheena and Mark Lepper. 2000. When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79(6): 995-1006.

[3] Iyengar, Sheena and Emir Kamenica. 2010. Choice Proliferation, simplicity seeking, and asset allocation. Journal of Public Economics. 94(7-8): 530-539.

[4] Vohs, Kathleen, Roy Baumeister, Brandon Schmeichel, Jea Twenge, Noelle Nelson and Dianne Tice. 2008. Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 94 (5): 883‑898.

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