Good Options Can Mask Bad Choices

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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, January 14, 2008

Take a step back from the Republican and Democratic presidential primary races and you will see a sharp difference between the two.

Democrats argue about the relative merits of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but opinion polls suggest that most Democrats think they are choosing among excellent options. Should any of these candidates win in November, your average Democrat will be delighted.

The Republicans present a very different field. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are viewed with suspicion by social conservatives and Republicans most worried about illegal immigration. Mike Huckabee is viewed with suspicion by the party establishment and by fiscal conservatives. Mitt Romney is viewed with suspicion by, well, depending on which version of Romney you mean, nearly everyone.

Psychological experiments show that people behave and think differently when they are confronted with multiple strong alternatives, compared with when they face a number of poor choices.

You don't need research to tell you that Democrats will be happy with whomever they choose. But what the research does reveal, paradoxically, is that Democrats might be more willing to accept a poor candidate because they like all their choices. When people are predisposed to feel good about their decisions, the internal warning mechanism that tells them they are making a mistake may not go off. By contrast, Republicans are not predisposed to be satisfied with whomever they choose.

This is not to say the eventual Republican nominee necessarily will be stronger than the eventual Democratic nominee. But, of the two, said psychologist Justin Kruger, it will be easier for Democrats to rationalize a poor decision.

Before you leap out of your chair in protest, consider the evidence -- and the underlying phenomenon. In one study, Kruger asked people to choose between two beautiful 2,900-square-foot apartments with waterfront views and top amenities. Others were asked to choose between two ugly 600-square-foot apartments in unattractive neighborhoods. Regardless of which apartment a hypothetical real estate agent recommended to the volunteers, people believed the agent was offering great advice when the choice was between beautiful apartments, but they thought the advice was lousy when the choice was between two dumps.

Other experiments show that people think managers and politicians are wise and farsighted when they make a decision between spending a budget surplus on one set of goodies or another -- even when the decision is poor -- but think the same leaders are stupid when they make a tough decision involving a cutback -- even when that decision is the best alternative among several bad choices.

Don Moore, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University, said the phenomenon reflects a kind of cognitive nearsightedness -- even when a decision has been molded by the available options, we tend to see it in absolute terms rather than in relative terms.

Moore said this is why people are generally more confident about winning an athletic event in good weather than in bad weather. They focus on their own performance, which will be better in good weather, but forget their competitors will also do well in good weather -- and fare poorly when it is rainy and cold.

"People tend to primarily look at the features of what is chosen and often underweigh or ignore the features of the alternatives," said Kruger, a social psychologist at New York University's Stern School of Business. "In situations where there are nothing but negative options -- you are a judge and you have to award a child to the state or to Parent A or Parent B, both of whom have problems, people will think the judge has made a bad decision no matter what he chooses."

In an election, voters are examining candidates along many subjective dimensions. But if you imagine all the candidates on a single linear scale, you will immediately see how this cognitive bias can influence the outcome.

If Democrats A, B and C score 5, 8 and 10 while Republicans D, E and F score only 2, 4 and 6 on our hypothetical scale, the experiments suggest most Democrats will be happy with any of the choices -- because they are picking from a strong field -- whereas Republicans will be unhappy with all their choices, because they are picking from a weaker field.

But as Democrats savor their choices, they would be wise to remember that cognitive myopia can prompt them to feel happy about Candidate A, who scores only 5, even as the Republicans gloomily plonk their money on Candidate F -- who happens to be a 6.

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