Conflict in decision-making can influence choice

Researchers say that when you look at others battling their thoughts to arrive at a decision, it could sway your decisions, too

Photo: iStockphoto.
Photo: iStockphoto.

Decision-making is central to people’s lives—from what colour shirt to wear to what company to acquire, every decision needs to be made one way or the other.

Researchers say that when you look at others battling their thoughts to arrive at a decision, it could influence your decision-making process as well, with your choice mirroring theirs.

Rom Y. Schrift, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton, along with Moty Amar, an assistant professor of marketing, School of Business at Ono Academic College in Israel, studied the process of decision-making and the impact it has on others in his latest research, Pain and Preferences: Observed Decisional Conflict and the Convergence of Preferences.

The thing with decision-making is that it offers a lot of visual cues—from facial expressions to body language, it is easy to observe the emotional conflict that someone is going through when they have to take a tough decision, observe the authors.

They find that people who observe the conflicted decision-makers tend to make a similar choice because we find that our immediate, instinctive reaction towards someone else’s pain and agony over a decision is to empathize with this individual, say the authors.

And this tendency is stronger among people who have a great tendency to empathize.

In one study, for example, people observed a person trying to make a decision on which of the two charities to donate to. In one experiment, the person acted as if the decision was extremely conflicting and difficult, and in another condition, the person acted like it wasn’t very difficult.

The researchers found that on observing the conflicted behaviour, people were much more likely to donate to the charity chosen by this conflicted person.

The authors also found that this mirroring of decision will happen only if the observer believed that the decision-maker indeed has a tough decision to make. If the observer sees the decision-maker conflicted about something trivial, the effect of empathy vanishes and in fact it can even backfire, say the researchers.

“This research suggests that in some situations, sharing the emotional conflict that you’re experiencing while making a certain decision would actually be very helpful to build consensus as group members or the team that I’m leading would have a greater tendency to choose like I did,” the researchers add.