Quick decisions might not be easy ones as ‘choice overload’ leads to stress

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It’s the kind of thing you might hear from a loved one trying to rush you along as you obsess over where to order dinner from tonight, or what to watch on Netflix.

Sushi or tacos? The Queen’s Gambit or Bridgerton? Does it really matter?

There are so many options like this competing for our attention, it can be overwhelming.

Scientists call this choice overload, and new research suggests those who seem to breezily make quick decisions may actually be more stressed out beneath the surface.

While their spontaneous choices may seem carefree, they often aren’t, according to psychology researcher and stress expert Thomas Saltsman with the University at Buffalo’s Singapore Institute of Management campus.

“They find making choices very onerous and difficult, and they don’t feel like they can make a good choice, so they try to bail out,” he said in an interview with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. Saltsman’s research on the subject was recently published in the journal Psychophysiology.

Dr. Thomas Saltsman is a stress researcher in the department of psychology at the University at Buffalo. (Submitted by Thomas Saltsman)

“They pick something that’s adequate and they try to move on, almost like an avoidant strategy: ‘this is difficult, I don’t like this, so I am just going to pick something and get it over with.'”

Saltsman, who himself admits to sometimes being “almost comically indecisive,” said past research suggested those who make quick decisions, referred to by researchers as “satisficers,” were characterized as having a “go with the flow” approach and seem less motivated or invested in the outcome than people characterized as “maximizers.” 

Maximizers typically spend longer weighing their choices and decisions. They’ve been characterized as more neurotic and obsessive, and as more likely to have regrets, stress and unhappiness related to choice overload.

Finding the perfect match

But he wanted to know how this all translates in physiological terms right at the moment of decision.

Saltsman recruited about 130 volunteers to study this question. To get a baseline of their general decision-making tendencies, participants were asked a series of questions to determine whether they tended to fall in the satisficer or maximizer camp.

For example, they were asked whether they take a long time to choose a movie or show on Netflix, or if, when grocery shopping, they tend to stare at and contemplate all the different options on the shelves.

Participants were asked a series of questions ahead of the experiment to gauge decision-making strategies, including how they might approach deciding on a particular grocery store item amid a sea of options.(Niloo/Shutterstock)

Past stress research has shown that when people feel less capable or less confident in a task, their arteries constrict. On the other hand, arteries tend to dilate when people feel confident and capable of the task before them.

Study participants were monitored for physiological reactions including cardiovascular response.

They were then put through a simulated online dating scenario. They were given a series of personal profiles and asked to choose the person they felt was the perfect match for them.

Not so aloof after all

Saltsman was surprised to find his team’s results challenged the conventional portrait of satisficers. 

The degree to which someone is invested in the decision before them, called task engagement, can be measured by the strength and pace of their heart beat.

Saltsman said while you’d expect the satisficers’ heart rates to be low, reflecting a relaxed state of mind, both groups showed very similar heart rates. Satisficers weren’t as detached and uninvested as past research would have suggested. 

But there was an even more surprising response. 

In the moment of decision, the arteries of participants who made quick decisions narrowed. This is associated with “negative” stress, which suggests they were flustered, stressed and panicked rather than indifferent.

“They’re showing this more negative, almost threatened form of stress compared to the maximizers in the moment of having to make a choice,” said Saltsman.

“[The satisficers’] arteries were relatively more constricted…. They’re feeling incapable and they’re feeling relatively unconfident to make the choice.”

Meanwhile, the maximizers’ arteries relaxed and dilated. That reflected confidence in their ability to take action and make decisions, even if those decisions took longer, the researchers concluded.

Satisficing is fine when it comes to trivial decisions, such as choosing what kind of takeout food to order, said Saltsman. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

Use ’em or lose ’em

Saltsman said there is a time and place for satisficing, particularly in mundane or trivial scenarios where you genuinely don’t care about the outcome. This is especially true in the world we live in today where we have so many more options at our disposal, he said.

But he also issued a warning. If we get into the habit of the avoidant response of going with the easy choice all the time, we risk being ill-equipped when presented with a big life decision.

“If we get into that routine and we don’t get practice at really flexing those decision-making muscles, when it comes time to actually make a really important decision, we might not be very good at it,” he said.

“We might not be very good at asking ourselves what our values are, what our preferences are, and working through those decisions that we actually need to.”

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