How To Make Better Choices


ChoicesBy Steve Martin, CMCT

A recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology has got me thinking about recruitment. But before we talk about that, I’d like you to imagine you are in the market for a new Wide Screen High Definition TV. I’m going to offer you three scenarios and ask you to consider which one you prefer. Ready? OK.

In the first scenario (A) you are shown two televisions that you are potentially interested in and given information about each of the TV’s respective screen sizes and resolution so that you can compare them side by side before deciding which one you prefer. The second Scenario (B) is similar to (A) except that the information about the screen size and resolution is not provided; you are simply comparing the TVs side by side with no additional information. The third, Scenario (C), is the same as (B) but this time instead of comparing both televisions at the same time you review the first, wait a day, and then review the second a day later. Which of the above scenarios do you prefer?

Most people tend to prefer Scenario A and like Scenario C the least. This makes sense because having access to information and the ability to make direct comparisons between options generally leads to better overall decisions – right? Well, according to research conducted by Adelle Yang and her colleagues at Chicago Booth Business School, the answer is maybe not as straightforward as you would think.

In fact in certain situations even though scenario C is the least preferred, those people who adopt it generally end up much more satisfied with their decision. So why might this be?

In explaining these counter-intuitive results Adele Yang from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, who led the studies points to the naturally occurring but often undetected difference between how people evaluate options when they are choosing compared to when they are consuming.

When choosing options people will typically be in what is called a Joint Evaluation (JE) mode. Put simply they will line up alternatives and compare attributes, benefits and features side by side. However once a decision is made people tend to experience their choice in isolation, or what is called Single Evaluation (SE) mode.          

Studies have shown that decisions made in Joint Evaluation mode and those made in Single Evaluation mode can yield remarkably different outcomes (See Hsee & Loewenstein for a review).

For example in one study,  participants were asked to decide between two dictionaries – one in brand new condition and containing 10,000 entries another containing 20,000 entries but with a torn cover. Those that evaluated them side by side preferred the brand-new fewer-entry option but those that reviewed them separately with a time gap in between preferred the less perfect larger-entry option.

The fact that decisions between two or more choices can be different simply due to whether we evaluate and compare them side by side or separately with a sufficient break in between is an important consideration both when buying and supplying. 

As an example Dr. Robert Cialdini warns of such a situation by pointing to the unethical comparisons that certain realtors will employ when attempting to influence purchasers. By first driving through a largely unattractive area of town, viewing properties that are wholly unsuitable, potential homeowners come to see as even more attractive properties that would otherwise be just acceptable if they had experienced them in isolation. As buyers, therefore it becomes important to be fully aware of the environmental situations and cues that may be unduly influencing our evaluations.

When looking to ethically persuade others these studies offer an additional insight. Rather than immediately providing detailed product specifications in the early stages of product presentations or customer interactions perhaps we should instead adopt an ‘experience first followed by specification and information’ approach.

All of which brings me to recruitment. We all know about, and have perhaps even experienced, an organization carrying out detailed side by side comparisons of potential recruits. This might even include pitting potential candidates against each other in assessment centers, most often conducted at the same time. This seems like an example of Joint Evaluation (JE) which may work out just fine. But one does wonder whether there is a case to be made for adopting a Single Evaluation approach. This might mean meeting shortlisted candidates on different days and coming to a decision based solely on the experience of meeting. Once an initial decision is made then this could be validated by looking more deeply at that candidate’s attributes.

The data doesn’t allow me to speculate further, but I’m sure that our readers will have plenty to say about their own experiences. 

Discussion Comments:

  • How do you think we form the most effective recruitment strategy?  Single or Joint Evaluation?
  • Aside from recruitment (for instance as suppliers and buyers) which comparison strategies have worked well for you or have been used on you?


Yang,  A, Hsee, C.K., Liu, Y. & Zhang, L. The supremacy of singular subjectivity: Improving decision quality by removing objective specifications and direct comparisons. Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 393–404

Hsee, C. K. (1996) Attribute Evaluability: Implications for Joint-Separate Evaluation Reversals and Beyond. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 67, No. 3, 1996.

Cialdini, R.B., (2009) Influence – Science and Practice. Allyn & Bac

  • ps

    I have been an evaluator on recruitment panels where we assess 10 or more people a day. We are always cautioned about comparing one candidate against the preceeding candidate. I do like the concept of meeting each independantly so immediate comparisons cannot be made. Unfortunately, where there are many to evaluate, I doubt businesses will not be inclined to spend the amount of time needed.

  • Greg

    Very interesting article. Your inquiry is directed to the most effective strategy. I have to ask: Effective for whom? From the point of view of the influencer, I can not help but wonder if we use the single evaluation strategy, how do we deal with (and utilize) the serial position effect?
    That is, wouldn’t the first presentation have the most influence, or possibly the last presentation, simply as a result of being first or last?
    When I pick a jury, we have to use joint evaluation. Like the comment by ps above, there are so many to evaluate, there is no time for single evaluation. However, jury selection is so important, I feel like ps above “I do like the concept of meeting each independantly”. Oh well, with so many budget cuts Courts have less time for this, so it is only a dream.

  • Tom

    Good article. I also have participated in interview panels (multiple interviewers, single candidate). It’s always single evaluations over a couple of days or weeks – does the candidate meet requirements and scored on the quality and thoroughness of their answers? I think we would feel strange comparing candidates side by side or back to back.
    The multiple interviewer process is a huge plus in reducing biases.
    Finally, planning interviews and investing the time up front is the best way to hire good employees. Once you hire them and perhaps discover many months later that they are misplaced wastes a lot of time and money.


    Interesting, when I read the scenario I thought that most people would pick A, but be better off with C. Something that Dan Gilbert wrote triggered this – he stated that pairwise choice for most consumer products makes no sense because you are only going to take one product so you should see how a single product works.

  • Rudy Sochan

    It would have been nice to know about the underlying mechanics as to why the results were such. I attribute them to the more effective holistic processing of the subconscious mind that leads us to pick the better T.V. or dictionary when we sleep on the decision. The details about the T.V. only distract us from considering what is truly important. By sleeping on the decision, heuristics and biases can be minimized. However relying on the subconscious is impractical during the hiring process and not advisable. Joint selections don’t work because we get distracted by what is salient – the differences in the two options. Instead, we should evaluate each applicant on his/her worth independently. This would ensure that the candidates are evaluated as a whole, instead of focusing on perhaps less relevant aspects that may gain unwarranted importance in the decision simply because it is more salient. Remember, the bigger T.V. might not be better and the Harvard graduate might not be more qualified.

  • Angel Gavin

    Great article! I’ve experienced something pretty similar when evaluating R&D projects. Where you say “recruiting people”, put “choosing among R&D proposals” instead, and the whole thing makes sense again.

  • Angel Gavin

    This article also reminded me the following Dan Gilbert’s talk at TED: Put simply, he states that when we make a decision, or something remarkable happens to us, we are somewhat “compelled” to believe it was the right and best choice/thing. It is what they call “synthetic happiness” (not necessarily worse than the “natural” one).

  • Rodney

    In my view there is something missing from Joint Evaluation that can lead to flawed decisions. You mentioned the study in which people chose a new dictionary with 10,000 entries if they had to choose between that and an old dictionary with a torn cover that had 20,000 entries. But if they used single evaluation participants chose the torn book with 20,000 entries. It seems that people are using different criteria when comparing two items than when evaluating them singly. However, if the participants were asked “What’s important to you in a dictionary?” And then directed to rate their priorities maybe some would decide that number of entries was a top priority and then choose the torn dictionary. Others who rated aesthetic criteria more highly might choose the new dictionary.
    When it comes to recruitment I feel the same criteria also helps. First determine what purposes you want this new person to serve. Then figure out what traits a person should have to fulfill those purposes. Finally figure out ways to find out to what degree a participant has each of those traits.
    Always begin with purposes, what are you trying to achieve, before making a decision. It’s something I learned from Gerald Nadler’s book “Breakthrough Thinking” and I’ve found it to be very helpful in making decisions of all kinds.

  • Steve Martin CMCT

    Hi Tom & Greg & PS too.
    Thanks for posting your comments, you all make good points.
    To Greg & PS I think you are right that in an ideal world we would all be afforded the opportunity to conduct single evaluations over time in order to come to optimal decisions. But in time scarce fast-moving environments such as business and jury selection this just might not be possible.
    Tom’s point about the subsequent costs of poor hiring decisions resonates too.
    Clearly there will be situation where the Joint Evaluation approach is most efficient but is there a point when it does become more efficient to adopt a single evaluation approach?
    Thanks for contributing to the IIR.

  • Steve Martin CMCT

    Thanks for your kind words Angel and also for providing the link to Dan Gilbert’s TED talk. I’ll download that and watch it this weekend.
    Cheers, Steve

  • Darren Ledger

    A great article and it would appear it has certainly created some genuine interest and excellent follow on comments.
    My only reservation is that when we take into account the people factor involved in recruitment it cannot be oversimplified in this way.
    For example, if you consider 2 candidates in Single Evaluation mode, so let’s say for example that they both attend ‘Final’ interviews on alternate days.
    Candidate A) attends on Wednesday and meets with HR, COO and CEO seperately.
    Candidate B) attends on Thursday and undergoes a similar series of meetings.
    The issue here is that the COO on Wednesday evening had a really bad nights sleep, HR on Thursday morning has had to deal with a disciplinary hearing and the CEO is pushed for time because he has a gold game scheduled at 2:30pm.
    Different states of mind from when they all saw Candidate A) on Wednesday. Different outlooks, different levels of focus and attention span. As such there is not the same degree of objectivity in the process.
    It is very difficult to ever relate sales processes or sales systems developed for inanimate objects to recruitment. People are in a constant state of change, biologically, physiologically and psychologically. Unlike a Flat Screen TV!

  • sudip samaddar

    It is marvellous article. I find less awareness about about cialdini methods in India.

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