Why You Choose the First Available Option

You may have noticed that you pick the first available option in some situations, but not in others. The decisions you make depend on the situation. In some situations you have to make a decision fast. In other situations you have time to consider. In some situations you have to make a decision between desirable options. In other situations you may only have undesirable options to choose from. These differences may lead you to make unhealthy choices in a more or less automatic sense. How can you make more healthy choices in such circumstances?

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I like to play padel. I also like to play for more than the standard one hour that I can book at my local padel club. Some regularities in the behavior of the other padel players allow me to do that. It helps if I book court 2 instead of court 1, because when other players book a court, they almost always book court 1 and not court 2. There are no meaningful differences between the two courts. The courts have the same orientation. The courts have the same artificial glass in the same color. They have the same amount of sand on the courts. The courts have been constructed at the same time and look neat. So why would people book court 1 instead of court 2?

Why court 1 is always booked first

According to psychologists Dana Carney and Mahzarin Banaji, people choose the first available option, because of the rule of thumb (which psychologists call a heuristic) that the First is the Best. They performed a series of experiments where they showed that first options in a series of two or more is preferred. In one of these experiments they approached people on a train station. The respondents where shown two pieces of similar looking bubblegum. These two pieces were placed quickly after one another on a white clipboard. Each participant would select either the piece of Bubble Yum or the identical looking piece of Bubblicious bubble gum. Participants quickly made a choice and most often chose the bubble gum presented first (62%) than the bubble gum presented last (38%) regardless of the brand.

Thus, people’s implicit preference is to choose options that are in first position. This is called the primacy effect. It explains why court 1 at my local padel club is always booked first. This is the first option that is encountered when booking a court. However, I am unlikely to always choose the first option on a menu in a restaurant. I am unlikely to book the vacation that is on top of the search results. I am also unlikely to buy the first padel shoes that are placed first on Padel Nuestro (when I visited that were the Asics Court FF 2 Black Green for only £140.57 – discounted from £156.19). So what are the conditions where the primacy effect is most likely to occur?

When you choose the first available option

First, the primacy effect is most likely to occur when you make decisions quickly. In the experiment with the bubble gum described earlier, the primacy effect was only found when respondents were instructed to make their choices quickly: “within one second or so”. When respondents were instructed to make a deliberate decision – “after you have thought about it” – respondents were as likely to choose the bubble gum presented first (51%) as the bubble gum presented secondly (49%). When we make decisions quickly, we are more likely to make decisions automatically and choose the first option available.

Second, the primacy effect is most likely to occur when you make decisions between undesirable options. Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found that when people choose between undesirable options, people choose the first option.

In a series of experiments, Epley varied the order in which options were presented. The order in which the options were presented had an influence on the preference for these options. Epley performed multiple experiments with different items, but the one with the jelly beans is my favorite. They either had people taste three good jelly or three bad jelly beans. The good jellybeans were three flavors of ordinary Jelly Belly brand jellybeans (very cherry, raspberry, and blueberry). The bad jellybeans were three flavors of the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (dirt, earwax, and grass). Wow, can you imagine tasting these flavors? Respondents tasting the bad jelly beans, liked the jellybean presented first better than the one presented last, irrespective of the flavor (which were counterbalanced in the study).

These experiments showed that people choose the first option when they choose between undesirable options. The details of the earlier experiences are most likely lost and must be reconstructed when making a decision. Such evaluations usually show regression to more moderate evaluations: evaluations of jelly beans presented first will become more moderate compared to jelly beans presented last.

When you choose the last available option

However, when people choose between neutral or desirable options and you have some time to consider their options, they are more likely to choose the last option. In a classic study, psychologists Timothy Wilson and Richard Nisbett presented passersby in a shopping center with four pairs of nylon stocking pantyhose. The shoppers were asked to make a judgement as to which one they thought was the best quality. They could take all the time they needed to make a judgement and thus had ample time to consider the options. Unknown to the respondents, all stockings were identical. The further the position was to the right, the more likely the stockings were to be judged as the best quality. Thus, when people choose between neutral or desirable options and you have some time to consider their options, they are more likely to choose the last option.

Deliberate and healthy choices

So when people are making choices quickly, the primacy effect leads people to choose the first option more often. People booking a padel court quickly are more likely to book court number 1, since it is the first option they encounter in the reservation process. Also, people tasting wines at a restaurant are more likely to choose the first wine presented, because they feel they have to choose the wine quickly (unless people are knowledgeable about wines and make more deliberate decisions).

When you are making choices that are beneficial for your health, we often make these options quickly. So, in those cases, you want the most beneficial choices to be presented first. When treating yourself after a workout at the gym, you may want a freshly-made fruit-smoothy to catch your eye earlier than a freshly tapped beer. When arriving at the office, you may want the stairs come to mind first, rather than automatically taking the elevator to the second floor. When doing your daily shopping, you may want to walk past your bicycle first, instead of walking past your car first. In all these cases, where you make decisions quickly or even automatically, you want the most healthy choice to be presented first. But how do you do that?

Adding friction to your decision process

These examples assume that the choices are made quickly and are neutral or desirable for you. More importantly, they assume that you personally have influence over the order in which options present themselves to you. That you decide which drink catches your eye first; that you influence the ease with which taking the stairs come to mind; that you notice the bicycle first when going for some last minute shopping. This is often not under your direct influence. However, what is under your influence, is reflecting every now and then on making these automatic choices more deliberate. You can do this by adding friction to your decision process. This can be either psychological friction or physical friction.

You can add psychological friction by committing yourself not to drink beer on a weekday. You can also add psychological friction by committing yourself to take the stairs whenever it is less or equal to 3 floors. You commit yourself to be a person who does not drink on weekdays and who takes the stairs. It would also help to share these intentions as widely as you can. In this way, you can make your automatic decisions more deliberate and more healthy at the same time.

You can also add physical friction. You want to ride your bicycle more often? Make the bike keys more accessible than your car keys. You could try Keymoment, for example. This is a key holder designed to increase the frequency of taking your bike instead of your car. If the bike key is taken, nothing happens. If the car key is taken, your bike keys drop to the floor. Dropping of the bike key creates a moment of deliberation after a routine has already been executed, and influences future choices between taking your bike or your car.

Keymoment is designed to increase the frequency of taking your bike instead of your car.

By adding psychological or physical friction, you can make your automatic decisions more deliberate and more healthy at the same time. If you know any other examples of making automatic choices more deliberate, drop me a note or add them to the comments.

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral designer and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your diversity and inclusion programs, marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: Photo by Markus Spiske via Pexels


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