I'm in the oral-care aisle of my neighbourhood drug store, staring at a wall of toothpastes. In front of me is a myriad of choices offering plaque-fighting, whitening, ultra-whitening, breath-freshening, cavity-preventing and ones for sensitive teeth. Add in all the possible flavours, and there must be more than 60 different kinds.
If I were to make a careful comparison of all my options, I'd be stuck here forever. But these days, the answer to mulitple-choice quandaries like these can be determined with the tap of a smartphone.
To help me pick a toothpaste, I take snapshots of four different products using my smartphone, upload them to Choozum, a new app, and ask its users which one I should buy. About an hour later, four people have responded; the plaque-fighting kind wins with two votes (although by the time I receive the results, I've already bought the cheapest all-in-one product and have long since exited the store).
In recent months, a new crop of crowd-sourcing mobile applications – like Deciderr, Seesaw and Choozum – allow users to ask strangers or Facebook friends to weigh in on their day-to-day choices. They join a multitude of of apps, ranging from simple digital roulette wheels and coin tosses to more complex programs based on algorithms, that are designed to help people make up their minds on everything from the mundane to the life-changing.
Although they are chiefly novelties, there's a demand for them. Within about a week of its launch, Deciderr had close to 1,000 users, and Choozum, which launched April 10, has nearly 1,000 active daily users as well. We face an overwhelming number of choices for even the most trivial matters, so letting something or someone else do the choosing helps save precious mental energy, not to mention avoid the dreaded decision fatigue. And outsourcing decisions is addictive: Having downloaded a handful of decision-making apps, I find myself obsessively checking my smartphone.
According to Sheena Iyengar's research, the average American makes about 70 conscious decisions per day, most of which, she says, eat up valuable time and mental energy. It's safe bet Canadians are faced with a similar number of decisions.
"The unfortunate reality today is people are spending too much time on the small decisions that are not very important because they just get sucked in," says Iyengar, the director of the global leadership program at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing. "We tend to think that because we have a choice, we should make it. But I actually think the biggest choice you should be making is which choices to make versus which choices to not worry about."
Iyengar eliminates as many insignificant choices as she can. She decides what makeup to wear twice a year, and applies the same kind every day. (Barack Obama is said to use the same strategy by wearing only blue or grey suits.) At restaurants, she asks the server to decide her meals for her. By doing so, she believes she can reserve her decision-making ability for matters of greater importance.
"If you're making a lot of quick choices, obviously you can't engage in high quality there, right?" Iyengar says, noting that people experience a depletion of energy the more decisions they make.
I can attest to this. At the end of a long workday, I can't be bothered to decide what to do about dinner. So I turn to an app called Precision Decision, which tells me I should throw together a meal at home instead of dining out. I'm slightly disappointed by the decision, but for the sake of saving money and eating more healthfully, it has chosen the best option.
Although it is difficult to quantify, people in modern Western societies are faced with more choices than ever before, says Ron Friedman, a Pittsford, New York-based social psychologist. And that doesn't necessarily mean we're happier for it.
"There is a lot of research showing that, while we have a psychological need for some choice in our lives, too much choice can make us incredibly miserable," Friedman says.
That's because turning down other options can make us fantasize about the paths we did not take, he explains. In other words, the more choices we have, the more opportunities there are for us to regret.
Friedman believes the new wave of crowd-sourcing apps could help us make better decisions, since other people – our friends in particular – are often better judges of what will make us happy than we are ourselves.
"People generally tend to overestimate their own uniqueness, when in fact, many of the preferences we ourselves have are quite similar to those around us. It's especially true for those in our own social network," Friedman says, adding: "In many cases, we're surprisingly poor decision-makers."
There is something to be said about sussing out what others think. I have to admit it offers me some reassurance that I'm making the right decision on my mortgage after asking Deciderr users whether I should opt or a fixed or variable rate. Seventy-one per cent say I should go with a fixed rate, winning with a vote of 10 to four.
The human mind, Friedman says, is susceptible to several cognitive blind spots. For instance, presentism – the tendency to overestimate how much our current emotional state will extend into the future – makes us buy too many groceries when we shop while hungry and too few when we shop on a full stomach. Focalism, the tendency to zero in on one aspect of a decision, makes us focus on the perks of a job offer without considering the potential downsides. And decision fatigue wears down our mental resources, making us vulnerable to impulse decisions, which, Friedman explains, is why supermarkets display candy at the checkout counters, when our willpower is at its weakest.
But app users should be cautious about relying too much on the opinions of others. "When it's a permanent, chronic way of making decisions, then it can mean that you don't necessarily get what you want," says Sheila Woody, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
That may be fine when it comes to shopping for toothpaste, but when it comes to the bigger choices in life, I'd rather those decisions be my own. After all, asking others for advice on obtaining a mortgage is one thing, but I'll be the one paying it.
Deciding on decision-making apps
Which app is the right one for your predicament? I tested three types, a chance-based app called CoinToss, an algorithm-based app called Precision Decision, and two crowd-sourcing apps, Choozum and Deciderr.
How it works: This simple app shows the image of a U.S. coin on a blank screen. (Users can choose between a dime, nickel, penny or quarter.) Simply assign your options as heads or tails and flick the coin to make it spin, revealing the outcome.
Pros: Easy to use and won't give you an ambiguous answer.
Cons: Usefulness is limited to choices that have only two possible options. And do you really want to put big decisions in the hands of Lady Luck?
How it works: This app requires you to rank the various criteria that are important to your decision against all of your options. Based on your rankings, it then calculates how closely each option comes to your ideal outcome as a percentage.
Pros: Forces you to think carefully about the merits of each possible option, which means the answer is more likely to be what you actually want.
Cons: Can be time-consuming to enter all the necessary info, and thus best suited for decisions that are worth the effort.
Choozum and Deciderr
How they work: These apps allow you to post a question, as well as photos of your possible options, and lets other app users or those within your social media network vote on those options.
Pros: Allows you to see what the majority would do in your shoes. Plus, the social aspect is kind of fun.
Cons: The timeliness of the outcome depends on who's willing and logged on to cast their votes, and occasionally the results end up in a draw.