Delay into Doubt

doubtimagesContinuing on the delay theme, this post is based on the paper: “Delay, Doubt, and Decision:  How Delaying a Choice Reduces the Appeal of (Descriptively) Normative Options” written by Niels Van de Ven, Thomas Gilovich, and Marcel Zeelenberg, that appeared in Psychological Science in 2010.
The authors examined whether choosing to delay making a choice between a focal option and an alternative tends to make people subsequently less likely to choose what they would otherwise have chosen. They based their efforts on a regularity in elections in the United States that is known as the incumbent rule. It refers to the fact that undecided voters who end up casting ballots tend to vote against the incumbent. One analysis found that in 127 of 155 national, state,
and municipal elections, the majority of undecided voters went for the challenger. This may seem a little odd since decision researchers have documented a status quo bias in people’s
choices—a bias to stick with the status quo option rather than try something new. So why do undecided voters not favor the incumbent? Van de Ven et al contend that undecided voters
interpret the fact that they have yet to decide as information that calls into question the wisdom of picking the incumbent. Given that the incumbent is typically the more psychologically prominent candidate, and that people know they often follow an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule, they may wonder why they have not already resolved to vote for the incumbent. In other words, they propose that the experience of doubt is experienced as doubt about the incumbent.

Three experiments were conducted to examine this. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to put themselves in the position of someone who had inherited money from a relative, with the stipulation that it had to be invested for 5 years before any of it could be spent. The relative’s financial adviser recommended that the money be invested in the stock of a particular company, but mentioned another company as an alternative. The overwhelming majority (82%) of participants in this condition opted to invest in the stock that was listed as the default. As predicted, a significantly smaller percentage of participants (56%) in the chosen-delay condition chose the recommended option even though the delay was less than an hour.

In Experiment 2, participants read that two articles were under consideration for a reading assignment for the introductory social psychology course, which they were to take in a few months. One of the articles had been assigned the past few years (the status quo), and the other was new. Participants were asked to vote for the article they would like to be assigned. Some participants were asked to make their choice immediately, some were told they would cast their vote at the end of the session, and the remainder were given the option to decide immediately or wait until the end. Most participants in the immediate choice (72%) and forced-delay (80%) conditions chose the status quo, whereas only a minority (42%) of those in the chosen-delay condition did so.

In Experiment 3, participants first completed a scrambled sentence task introduced as a study of language skills unrelated to the other tasks in the session. In the neutral condition,
participants unscrambled 20 sets of words that did not revolve around a single theme. In the doubt condition, participants also unscrambled 20 word sets, but 10 of these sets were related to the theme of doubt. For example, the set “did know not to John what do” could be unscrambled to create “John did not know what to do.”  Participants were then asked to make choices about Sony and Samsung flat screen televisions. In those primed with doubt, it was more difficult to make decisions about the televisions.

The authors’ explanation is that the normative option is typically the most prominent option, and hence the most salient “target” to which one’s sense of doubt can be attributed. This implies that a sense of doubt may make people more likely to opt for the normative option when it is not more salient than the alternative.  Also, the more personally consequential the decision, the less likely people may be to stray from the “safety” of the normative option.

Van de Ven et al note that their  findings extend research by Simmons and Nelson on how people choose between intuitive and more analytic options. Their work focused on situations in
which one has a “gut” feeling that one option is best, but that feeling is opposed by deliberate, “rational” considerations. Simmons and Nelson found that feeling confident, even when
induced by unrelated sources, makes people especially likely to go with their gut feeling. For example, they found that people who bet on sports events strongly prefer to bet on the favorite against the point spread (because their conviction that the favorite will win the game carries over to the more challenging bet against the spread). However, when participants were given a description of an upcoming game in a difficult-to-read font that prompted a vague, free-floating sense of uncertainty, they chose the favorite less often. Delaying a choice that could have been made earlier is seen as a cue that one is not confident of which alternative is best. That lack of confidence, in turn, makes people less likely to choose the “intuitive option.”

Is it a good thing that delay seems to bring on doubt in the normal obvious option? When the status quo is arbitrary or the normative option would otherwise be mindlessly followed, the effect of delaying a choice will, on average, be positive. But normative options, such as defaults or the status quo, are often normative because they represent the voice of experience and wisdom. Thus, abandoning normative options may, in many circumstances, lead to decisions of lower average quality than those ordinarily made. The clearest prescriptive implication, then, is that decision makers should be aware that the decision to delay making a choice is not a neutral act: It alters the choices they make in a predictable direction.


Van de Ven, N., Gilovich, T., Zeelenberg, M. (2010). “Delay, Doubt, and Decision:  How Delaying a Choice Reduces the Appeal of (Descriptively) Normative Options.” Psychological Science 21(4) 568–573.

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