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Spreading of alternatives

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals often need to choose among several options. They might, for example, need to decide which of several job applicants to recruit, houses to purchase, or holiday destinations to visit. Often, in these instances, each of the alternatives demonstrate both benefits and drawbacks-and hence the decisions are difficult to reach. If recruiting employees, for example, they might perceive Tom as more intelligent, experienced, and creative, but perceive Harry as more sociable, composed, and empathic.

Interestingly, after individuals reach a decision, they become more aware of the benefits and merits of the alternative they selected. If they choose Tom, for example, the intelligence, experience, and creativity of this person is more salient. Likewise, they become more aware of the drawbacks or complications of the options they rejected. In this example, the positive qualities of Harry are obscured and his negative qualities are magnified. The selected alternative seems unambiguously superior overall-an inclination called the spreading of alternatives (for a review, see Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, & Johnson, 2008).

Spreading of alternatives is patently adaptive. If individuals did not exhibit this tendency, they would continue to perceive all the alternatives as similar in utility or value. Any minor perturbations in the environment, such as additional information, could change the relative standing of these alternatives. Individuals who initially chose Tom might, hours later, decide that Harry is superior. Regret would be rife& choices would often be revoked& decisions would often not be implemented& efficiency would decline expeditiously.

Empirical evidence

Most studies have demonstrated spreading of alternatives in laboratories (see also Brownstein, 2003). Schindler and Tomasik (2010), however, showed that spreading of alternatives can also be observed in important life tasks. That is, as these researchers demonstrated, when individuals need to choose a major at university or a romantic partner, they also demonstrate spreading of alternatives.

Specifically, in their study, the participants were university students who had not decided which major to select. That is, they had not decided which of several alternatives to pursue. These participants evaluated the extent to which various alternative majors, such as economics or history, seemed attractive. For each major, they answered questions like "I think that this choice of major will allow me to succeed financially" or "I believe that others think highly of this major". Across four months, they completed these questions five times. During this period, many of the participants did eventually choose one of these majors.

In addition, participants completed a measure of selective control, derived from the life-span theory of control (Heckhausen 1999& Heckhausen & Schulz 1995). Selective control comprises a series of strategies and tactics that individuals apply to maintain their focus on a chosen course of action. They might, for example, change their environment to curb competing desires or construct more favorable representations of this goal to mobilize their efforts. Typical items include "In order to make progress I avoid anything which could distract my attention".

After, compared to before, participants chose a major, they were more likely to perceive this course of study as attractive. These participants, therefore, seemed to demonstrate spreading of alternatives. Nevertheless, contrary to hypotheses, selective control did not significantly magnify this spreading of alternatives. Conceivably, rather than orient their attention to the benefits of their choices, individuals who demonstrate selective control might apply other tactics to increase their persistence.

Factors that magnify or inhibit the spreading of alternatives

Several studies indicate that spreading of alternatives depends on the mindset of individuals (see Mind set theory). That is, sometimes individuals strive to assess alternatives and select options, called a deliberative phase. On other occasions, individuals attempt to develop plans and means to initiate these selections, called an implemental or action phase (see Gollwitzer, 1990). According to Harmon-Jones and Harmon-Jones (2002), spreading of alternatives should diminish when individuals assess alternatives& biases towards the preferred option might generate unsuitable choices. In contrast, spreading of alternatives should be pronounced during the implemental phase--in which initiation of action is the principal motive.

Harmon-Jones and Harmon-Jones (2002) conducted studies that substantiate these arguments. In one study, for example, some participants were instructed to list seven activities they could undertake to enhance their performance on some physical exercise they had selected. These reflections have been shown to evoke the implemental phase (e.g., Henderson, de Liver, & Gollwitzer, 2008). Other participants were instructed to list seven activities they undertake in a typical day, which does not necessary activate any specific mindset.

Next, participants evaluated various alternatives before and after some decision. If the implemental phase was evoked, participants were especially inclined to evaluate the alternative they chose favorably after they chose this option, which reflects a spreading of alternatives. In other words, spreading of alternatives was more pronounced if participants had previous imagined initiating various activities.

Responses that demand effort

Often, people need to decide between two or more alternatives, such as restaurants. If people feel they have devoted effort into their choice--for example, if they shade in a square that indicates they prefer one restaurant to another restaurant--spreading of alternatives and related distortions are especially pronounced. That is, after people devote effort to a specific choice, individuals feel they must be committed to this alternative. This commitment amplifies spreading of alternatives.

For example, in one study, reported by Polman and Russo (2012), participants received six facts about two restaurants in sequence. These facts related to the ambience, desserts, reputation, location, menu, and service of each restaurant. The first fact favored the first restaurant. The fourth fact favored the second restaurant. The other facts did not favor either restaurant, as shown by pilot tests. After each fact, participants indicated which of the two restaurants they preferred as well as whether this fact favors the first or second restaurant.

To indicate which of the two restaurants these individuals preferred, some participants were instructed to shade a box--an activity that demanded some effort. Other participants merely circled a box--an activity that demanded minimal effort. If participants shaded, rather than circled, the box, they were more likely to favor the first restaurant. That is, after reading the first fact, and thus after shading the box associated with the first restaurant, they felt especially committed to this alternative. They perception of the subsequent facts was distorted, favoring this restaurant.

As the second study showed, even if participants needed to memorize a large number during the study, this pattern of observations persisted. This distortion, therefore, does not demand conscious deliberation but seems to proceed unconsciously. Finally, if participants could ascribe the effort of this decision to another source, such as the color of their pen, this pattern dissipated. Presumably, in this condition, participants did not assume their effort implies commitment to the first restaurant.

Reversible decisions

In some instances, decisions are reversible. That is, after they reach a decision, participants are still able to change their choice. In general, people prefer the option to reverse a decision (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). Nevertheless, when decisions are reversible, individuals are usually not as satisfied with their choices (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). Specifically, when decisions are reversible, individuals are not as committed to their choices. Spreading of alternatives is thus impeded, and hence satisfaction with the choices of individuals is limited.

Mechanisms that underpin the spreading of alternatives

Originally, spreading of alternatives was regarded as a means to curb cognitive dissonance--to circumvent conflicts between preferences and behaviors (e.g., Brehm, 1956). That is, if individuals do not engage in spreading of alternatives, their behavior to choose one alternative conflicts with the positive attitudes towards the other options. This conflict evokes an aversive state, called cognitive dissonance (see Cognitive dissonance).

Alternative accounts have been proposed. Gawronski, Bodenhausen, and Becker (2007), for example, argue that spreading of alternatives is akin to an endowment effect, which they call associative self-anchoring. In particular, when individuals choose one alternative, they associate this option with the self. As a consequence, whether or not they subsequently prefer the chosen alternative--and thus demonstrate spreading of alternatives--will depend on their implicit attitudes or evaluations of themselves.

Generally, individuals form positive associations with the self& hence, they will usually prefer the chosen alternative. Nevertheless, some individuals form negative associations with the self& these individuals will not necessarily prefer the chosen alternative. They will not, therefore, invariably demonstrate spreading of alternatives.

The implications of this model, which was substantiated by Gawronski, Bodenhausen, and Becker (2007), are vital. If individuals do not perceive themselves favorably, they will seldom show spreading of alternatives. As a consequence, they will often regret their choices and fail to initiate their decisions. Their perceptions towards themselves might, thus, decline further. A vicious cycle might evolve.

Neural basis to the spreading of alternatives

Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, and Johnson (2008) examined the neural underpinnings to this spreading ofalternatives. They showed that activation of left frontal regions amplified this spreading of alternatives.

In particular. to activate this region, Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, and Johnson (2008) utilized EEG biofeedback training, also called neurofeedback training. In this paradigm, participants receive information about their brainwave activity, through video display, vibration, or sound. They receive rewards whenever the activation of the desired region--the region the experimenters want to assess--is augmented. When this procedure was applied to activate left rather than right frontal regions, spreading of alternatives was magnified.

Interesting, in a subsequent study, when an implemental phase was evoked, a similar pattern of brain activation was observed (Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, & Johnson, 2008). According to Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, and Johnson (2008), the left rather than right frontal regions seem to be involved with initiating actions to approach desirable end states--especially when conflicting inclinations are activated& spreading of alternatives seem to have evolved to resolve these conflicts and to initiate action.

Research undertaken by MacDonald, Cohen, Stenger, and Carter (2000) underscores the role of left frontal regions in the resolution of conflicting inclinations. The left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, for example, seems to more active when individuals need to undertake actions that diverge from their natural inclinations. In particular, this region is more active before individuals need to name the colors, rather than read the words, in Stroop tasks.


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Last Update: 6/28/2016