We tend to think of conflict as the enemy of good decision making. We dread situations that involve difficult choices. Indeed, studies by Amos Tversky, Eldar Shafir, Ravi Dhar, Itamar Simonson and their colleagues suggests that people will actually avoid making decisions that are difficult. When given a choice between selecting one of two options that require making a difficult tradeoff (for example, selecting apartments that differ in size and commute time), people prefer to put the decision off until later rather than addressing it right away.
An interesting paper by Jennifer Savary, Tali Kleiman, Ran Hassin, and Ravi Dhar in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that there may also be an upside to experiencing conflict. Specifically, they suggest that when people have two conflicting goals that they are grappling with, that makes them likely to think carefully about choices in order to resolve the conflict.
In order to induce conflicting goals, participants did a lexical decision task in which they saw a series of letters and had to press one button of those letters formed a word and a second button if they did not form a word. In the conflict condition, some of the words referred to a particular goal (such as being healthy, with words like fitness and active), and others referred to a second goal that conflicts with the first (such as indulgence, with words like decadent and indulge). The control condition did not have conflicting goals embedded in the words that were part of the lexical decision task. Tasks like this have been used in many previous studies to activate goals and to create goal conflict.
After this lexical decision task, one study gave people difficult choices (like a choice between apartments that differ in size and commute time) and asked people to select one of the options or to defer the choice until later. Participants who were induced to feel a conflict between goals were actually more likely to choose one of the options rather than deferring the choice than people in the control condition who were not given a goal conflict.
In a second study, participants were given these choices using a computer system that tracked the amount of time participants spent making the decision and the number of features of the options they explored. Participants induced to experience a conflict looked at more features and spent more time making the choices than those who did not experience a conflict. This study also demonstrated that people were not aware of the goal conflict that was induced.
One other study tested the idea that conflicting goals increase how thoroughly people process information about choices in a slightly different way. Again, goal conflict was induced using the lexical decision task. This time, though. The decision task involves selecting from among three options (say three different apartments). One was very good on one dimension (it was large), but very bad on the other (it was far from work). A second was bad on that first dimension (it was small), but good on the other (it was close to work). A third was a compromise (medium in size, a moderate commute to work).
Previous research suggest that when people don’t want to work that hard making a choice, they tend to select the compromise option so that they don’t need to figure out which dimension is more important to them. If people really think carefully about the choice, then, they will be more likely to pick one of the extreme options rather than the compromise.
Consistent with the other two studies, participants induced to have a goal conflict were more likely to pick one of the extreme options than people in the control condition who had no goal conflict.
An interesting aspect of these studies is that the goal conflict that was induced was not directly related to the choices people were making. So, the increase in depth of thought about the choices was caused by the presence of active goals that conflict, and not based on the activity of goals that were relevant to evaluating the options.
This research suggests that we experience two kinds of conflicts when making choices. One conflict is between options that are about equally attractive and require tradeoffs among the features to figure out which is best. These conflicts make it hard for people to choose. Often, people prefer to defer the choice until later or pick an easy compromise option rather than resolving tradeoffs.
The second kind of conflict is one between incompatible goals. These goal conflicts arouse the motivational system. This arousal leads people to consider options more carefully, think about them more deeply, and ultimately helps people to make the tradeoffs that can make decisions difficult.