Decision Difficulty and Uncertain Preferences: Implications For Consumer Choice

Ravi Dhar, Yale University
[ to cite ]:
Ravi Dhar (1994) ,"Decision Difficulty and Uncertain Preferences: Implications For Consumer Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 24.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Page 24


Ravi Dhar, Yale University

Most conceptions of rational decision making assume that individual preferences are well defined. This viewpoint of consumers' decision making is inconsistent with the emerging consensus among consumer decision researchers that preferences are often fuzzy, unstable, and inconsistent . Consumers are depicted as constructing and expressing rankings with respect to possibilities that they have actually considered. An implicit assumption of constructive preferences is that the choice among different alternatives based solely on attribute tradeoffs may be difficult. Decision difficulty does not play a role in normative theory (e.g., MAUT) since it assumes that prior to choice, the decision maker assesses the utility of each possible outcome on each of several dimensions to arrive at the overall attractiveness. In contrast to this view, consumers often arrive at choice situations with no clear idea of their preferences and often find it difficult to face multiple options without becoming confused. Often one does not know which of the two things one wants more, while not being certain that one wants them equally.

Most of the previous research examines difficult decisions within a cost-benefit framework trading off effort and accuracy. The neglected role of constructive preferences in creating decision difficulty raises interesting questions. There may be broad classes of problems that cause us difficulty in decision making and are the focus of the present session. One set of problem depends on the complexity of the choice situation. Complexity is influenced both by the number of alternatives and the number of attributes used to describe each alternative. A second source of difficulty arises when the choice situation creates emotional stress that may threaten values that are important to us. In such circumstances, the process of decision making is prone to various distortions and errors that can act as powerful barriers to rational thought.

The four papers in the session differ in their degree of process-outcome orientation: the first two papers (Johnson and Shafir; Bettman, Luce, and Payne) make substantive contribution to the process by which difficult choices are made. The first paper questions the normative models of economic choice that assume that more choice is better for the individual. They explore situations in which increasing the number of alternatives or features results in decreasing the quality of the choice. They argue that increasing the number of features used in describing an alternative may increase the number of reasons for or against switching. The authors conduct a series of experiments in order to specify both the causes, specific effects, and mediating processes that surround the changes in choice as the number of alternatives that are considered change.

The second paper examines how stress or task related emotional factors influence the manner in which information is processed, an under researched area and shows how its understanding can broaden the impact of decision theory on consumer behavior. The authors propose and test a framework for understanding these effects using mouselab. The results indicate that subjects in the high emotion condition tend to process information both more extensively and by attribute. The studies demonstrate that emotions may alter decision processing by priming coping goals and increasing errors in executing the strategy selected.

The latter two papers are concerned with the outcomes of the choice process (Heath and Puri; Dhar and Prelec). The third paper examines the role of complexity of alternatives on decision instability. The authors propose that the choice process can be viewed as one of sampling relevant information and aggregating that information into a decision. Thus, a choice emerges if the above process results in a stable intention (Montgomery 1983). Two studies that examine the effect of cues on the sampling and the aggregation process are conducted. They find that manipulating both the sampling or the aggregation stage influences the instability of the decision for difficult choice.

The fourth paper examines the role of context in choosing among choice sets or "menus" from which a single item is later selected. The authors question the assumption of rational choice that states that consumer preference among menus is influenced solely by the "utility" of the most preferred item in the menu. The authors show that adding options that are irrelevant may affect the choice among menus when preferences are uncertain. Several potential explanations underlying the observed results are examined.

When taken as a group, the papers in the session should help to highlight some of the promising avenues that are emerging in this important area of research.