The big idea
The next time someone asks you where you want to go for dinner, state a clear preference. And if you’re inviting someone out, tell your friend that you don’t like deciding. These are two of the main takeaways from a recent study we conducted on how people make joint decisions, offering ways to avoid the indecision and annoyance that can follow questions intended to solicit someone else’s opinion on what to do together.
We’ve all experienced this sort of exchange in our lives, in which we ask someone else, “What do you want to do?” It could be about food, an evening activity or pretty much any other shared activity. In a paper published late last year in the Journal of Marketing Research, we examined what people expect, want and hope to signal when they ask and answer questions like this. We found there is often a mismatch between what other people say and what the other person wants to hear.
In one study, for example, we approached pairs of people who happened to be walking together on a university campus. We then randomly picked one person to invite the other out to dinner, over text, and asked the friend to select from two specific restaurants. We also asked the participant extending the invitation to tell us whether they’d prefer their friend to respond with the name of a specific restaurant or that either would be fine.
We found that while many of those on the receiving end said they’d be fine with anything – even though we learned separately that they had a preference – the other person almost always wanted their friend to state a clear choice.
We found the same mismatch again and again in other studies involving deciding on different activities – such as what movie to see and which museum to visit – and with different types of participants.
Why it matters
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily curtailed opportunities for dining out and some other activities, there’s still no end to the need to make shared decisions with friends, family, co-workers or others about what to do or eat. We found that a failure to state a clear preference when asked can hurt your social life.
In one of our studies, we found that people preferred to spend time with friends who expressed a clear choice when asked a “what would you like to do” type question. Although people being asked for their preferences say they believe they are coming across as more likable if they express an openness to anything, the opposite is true – and can lead to fewer invitations in the future.
But the solution to this dilemma doesn’t just depend on the respondent. We found in one of our studies that the person extending the invitation can usually bypass the indecision by simply adding, “I don’t like deciding!”
What still isn’t known
Our research focused on relatively minor decisions. But what about more lasting and consequential joint decisions, such as a recurring meal kit delivery subscription, a vacation or even a house? In these cases, do people like it when others express no defined preferences or do the higher stakes lead the person responding to provide a clear desire? The answer to this question is still unknown.
We are working on new research examining various questions about how people navigate decisions that affect other people in their lives. For example, we are working on examining how people make decisions about whether to initiate social interactions with others and examining the kinds of decisions that people make for themselves versus for others.