From the Lab: Consider All of Your Options (Together)

In a recent study reported by Harvard Business Review, Shankha Basu and Krishna Savani compared two different ways of making decisions: considering your options in series—examining them one by one—or considering them in parallel—examining them all at one, next to each other.

What they found was that across a variety of different kinds of decisions, “people were, on average, 22% more likely to choose the objectively best option when they viewed options together rather than one at a time.” In one experiment, “those who viewed options individually chose the best option 75% of the time, while those who viewed options together identified the best product 84% of the time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always do this. In a survey about how people made decisions, the researchers found that despite the fact that parallel comparison is better, people only use this technique for about half of the decisions they make. In addition, when it comes to presenting decisions (on a shopping website, for example), only some presenters give their audience the chance to use it (for example, by allowing customers to compare products side-by-side).

When you’re the one presenting a decision, you can use this information to good effect for the benefit of both you and your audience (assuming that the right decision for the audience is also the right decision for you, which hopefully it is). Whenever possible, present options side-by-side, and your audience will be more likely to choose wisely.

In the News: The Cartoon Closet

Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie. These days, it seems that many of the most successful people in the world are turning into cartoon characters, with only one set of clothes in their closet. But it turns out that they’re doing it for a good reason, which is known in psychology as decision fatigue.

As Zuckerberg explains, “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” As president, Barack Obama agreed, saying, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” And the research suggests that they’re right: every decision we make (however small) wears us down a little bit and makes it harder for us to make decisions in the future.

In The Science of Speaking (and in yesterday’s blog post), I give specific advice on what to wear for your presentations. But it’s also worth noting that if it’s an important presentation, it may be better to focus on the presentation itself than to worry about exactly what to wear for it. Of course, you want your attire to fit in, to make you feel good, and perhaps help you stand out, but as Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Obama know, the small decisions involved in picking your attire can sap the energy you need to perform at your best.

To mitigate this potential problem, here are a few additional pieces of advice to consider when picking your attire for a speech:

  1. Pick it out ahead of time, so that you don’t have to worry about it the day of your speech.
  2. Regardless of when you pick out your attire, eat something between then and when you give your speech. As noted in the review of decision fatigue research cited above (and here), nourishing your body can renew your ability to reach peak performance.
  3. If you’re so inspired, develop a personal brand like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Obama and others, which will help you avoid decision fatigue while simultaneously guaranteeing that you always look polished and giving you a chance to stand out.