Choice cuts

Radiolab is a programme on WNYC New York Public Radio. It seeks to cover mainly scientific and philosophical topics in an entertaining and thought provoking style. Whether you like the style or not, the content is usually fascinating, and it is well worth signing up to the two-weekly podcasts.

A fairly recent show was on the subject of Choice, looking at different aspects and quirks of human decision making. Examining how people make (or fail to make) good decisions should be of interest to every career practitioner.

The news that the vast number of choices available to relatively advantaged students in the modern world is likely to lead to paralysis, indecision and stress is not necessarily news to any careers adviser. However, the ‘poster test’ effect described by Malcom Gladwell which seems to demonstrate that making people explain their choices can lead them to making bad decisions should raise a few eyebrows and make us think about our practice.

Gladwell bases his stories on the work of Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia. In a paper from Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Volume 22, 1989), Wilson gave a number of examples of how forcing explanations from people can be disruptive. In one striking example, students were asked to give reasons for their feelings about their steady dating partners. Those who were forced to give reasons why they thought that their relationships were well adjusted were much less likely to be still with their partner after several months than those who were not asked to explain.  You can also hear more from Gladwell on this subject in the Pop!Tech podcast on human nature. This may put you off the idea of ever running a focus group again!

  • Are we increasing the likelihood of job dissatisfaction by asking people to explain their choices?
  • Is the most important role to give clients a vocabulary and a set of concepts that allows them to articulate their choices without dumbing down their thinking?
  • Are employers contributing to staff turnover by asking motivation questions in interviews?

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  1. #1 by David Winter on 11 September 2009 - 20:59

    UPDATE: A more recent piece of research has followed the same lines as the poster test above – this time using abstract and representational paintings. See

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