Decision making: woman at fork in road

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BLACKSBURG, Va. — The typical American makes upwards of 35,000 choices per day, studies have shown. These choices vary from the trivial decisions of which foods to eat to the more serious issues such as vaccinations. Though these choices may occasionally cause stress, one recent study suggests that they help us become more unique and independent.

“America is called the republic of choice. Just go into the supermarket – there are a mind-boggling variety of just cookies,” says Shilpa Madan, assistant professor of marketing in the Pamplin College of Business, in a statement. “Just thinking about making choices makes people more independent and more concerned about their self-interests. It makes people more individualistic.”

To have an influence, Madan points out that these decisions do not have to be profound.

“The actual choices could be trivial. Maybe you woke up this morning and chose to eat cereal for breakfast instead of egg. You chose to like a few posts on Instagram but ignore several others. This mere sense of choice, that you are in the driver’s seat, makes people feel that they are independent and important,” she says. “It is said that we make choices that shape our environment, but most of us don’t realize how our choices shape us.

“This focus on the self isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it can have a range of positive consequences for the individual,” she adds. “When people think of themselves as independent, they are less likely to tolerate harassment or discrimination, more willing to raise their voice, and more willing to negotiate better conditions for themselves.”

This may have detrimental effects on the health of the whole population, though. Madan says the more independent and self-interested people become, the harder it is for society to be more cohesive and “take collective action.” This was demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more individuals, as time went on, were declining masks and opting against vaccinations.

“The challenges the world is facing right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, discrimination, bias, and inequity – need collective action, need people to work together for the greater good,” she notes. “As research scientists, we are trying to find interventions for specific contexts where we can attenuate this negative effect of choice on collective well-being. What are the kind of interventions we can create to make people wear a mask, or get vaccinated, or make them care for the environment?”

As our options continue to expand, more investigation is necessary in order to maintain individualism without sacrificing the common good.

Until then, Madan reaffirms the importance of making decisions thoughtfully and conscientiously. We must make wise judgments for ourselves, but with society in mind too. “Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), speaks to this,” she says. “Make choices that are not just self-serving but good for those around you.”

The study is published in PNAS.

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