Once I did get to Cafe du Monde, imagine my surprise to discover two things. First of all, it was not the easy “walk in, order beignets, enjoy” process that I was delusionally expecting. Secondly, I soon discovered that cafe au lait and beignets were, in fact, the only things that they had on the menu.
There’s no doubt that Cafe du Monde is renowned for their beignets. But let’s imagine for a second that there were a Starbucks right down the street, and this Starbucks had managed to create incredible beignets as well. If you were coming to New Orleans and wanted to enjoy a midday pastry with some friends, where should your group decide to go?
If you weren’t sure what you really want to eat, the answer would probably be Starbucks. After all, you could get beignets and cafe au lait there if you really wanted to, but you would also be able to eat and drink a wide variety of other things as well.
If you knew that you definitely wanted beignets and cafe au lait, on the other hand, you would most likely opt for Cafe du Monde, even if the beignets and coffee at Starbucks were objectively just as good.
This is not a perfect comparison, of course. After all, many New Orleans tourists visit Cafe du Monde not just for the delicious beignets, but for the sheer experience of “eating at the famous Cafe du Monde.” Yet this Starbucks vs. Cafe du Monde dilemma is still a good demonstration of how our choices might be influenced by the dilution effect. Increasing the number of potential goals attached to any given activity (or means) decreases how strong you think the link is between that means and each goal, even if the actual instrumentality has remained unchanged.
For another concrete example, think about cell phones. When choosing to buy a cell phone, most people would opt for an iPhone with a variety of cool functions over an old-school phone that could only make calls. However, if you tell someone to imagine that they are on the street next to someone who is dying, and they have just one shot to call an ambulance in order to save this person’s life…most people actually indicate that they would prefer to place this crucially important call on the “dumb phone.” This is because we assume that the phone that only makes calls must be objectively better at making phone calls than the iPhone — after all, it better be, since that is the only function that it serves! Even if the iPhone is actually objectively better at placing phone calls that will not get dropped, that’s not what our intuitions will immediately indicate.
The dilution effect tells us that any means that serves multiple goals will seem worse at serving any given one of them than a means that serves that goal alone, even if that is not objectively true. New research presented at a Saturday SPSP session by Edward Orehek extends this research to indicate that there are actually individual differences in how we respond to this effect. Earlier research by Kruglanski and colleagues suggests that there are two types of people — assessors and locomotors. Assessors will carefully evaluate their options, critically analyzing each alternative in an effort to select the best one. They will compare themselves to others and carefully critique their own work. Locomotors, on the other hand, are oriented towards quick, fluid movement. They are more likely to begin new projects shortly after finishing old ones. This is basically a distinction between “thinkers” and “doers.”
Based on this distinction, Orehek and colleagues hypothesized (and found) that locomotors and assessors would show different responses to the dilution effect. In one study, for example, the researchers primed participants to think a time that they either “acted like a doer” or “carefully assessed their options,” thus manipulating this individual difference. They subsequently presented all of the participants with information about the benefits of certain healthy activities. For example, they said that eating tomatoes is either good for you because (a) it prevents certain cancers, (b) it prevents degenerative eye disease, or (c) it prevents certain cancers AND prevents degenerative eye disease. In this case, Options A & B would be like Cafe du Monde – they specialize in beignets, but they don’t serve anything else. Option C would be like Starbucks – they might serve great beignets, but they also serve great muffins.
Rationality would suggest that people would have the most positive attitude towards eating tomatoes in Condition C. However, this is not actually the case. Locomotors — those who were primed to think about “doing” — rated tomato consumption more positively when it was linked to only one positive outcome, as opposed to two. Assessors, on the other hand, preferred tomatoes when they thought that eating them would serve multiple positive outcomes. This same effect arose when the researchers provided either one or two benefits of exercise (and then rated participants’ attitudes towards exercise), when they asked participants to list either one or three functions that their own personal computers served in their everyday lives (and then measured participants’ attitudes towards their computers), and when they provided either one or two potential health benefits of drinking water (and then measured how thirsty the participants felt). When locomotors thought that water would give them more energy and skin clarity, they felt less thirsty than when they thought water would do only one or the other; assessors reacted the other way around.
This gives us some great insight into how people operate when they have different mindsets. When someone is geared towards making the best possible decision, they will prefer to “kill two birds with one stone,” so they choose actions with multiple positive outcomes because they offer the best bang for their buck. This would be like going to Starbucks instead of Cafe du Monde, or choosing to buy an iPhone. If you want the best possible value, you will choose the option that provides you with the most potential benefits. If someone is geared towards surefire action or being a “doer,” on the other hand, they are more likely to prefer an action when it’s linked to only one goal, because of an implicit assumption that it will accomplish this single goal more effectively. This would be like going to Cafe du Monde if you know that you just want to get beignets, or placing a call to the ambulance on an old-school Nokia if you know that you only have one chance for the call to go through.
There are many situations in which people are oriented towards immediate action rather than careful consideration. In fact, research from my own lab has shown that some people hold chronic “action goals,” a general preference towards simply acting regardless of what that action happens to be. When we try and get people to make decisions, either in politics, health promotion, or advertising, we often stress the multiple positive outcomes of that choice because of a rational assumption that more = better. According to this research, however, this might not be the best strategy for everyone. You might have better luck with some people if you choose to specialize in beignets.
Orehek, E., Mauro, R., Kruglanski, A., & van der Bles, A. (2012). Prioritizing association strength versus value: The influence of self-regulatory modes on means evaluation in single goal and multigoal contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 22-31 DOI: 10.1037/a0025881
Zhang, Y., Fishbach, A., & Kruglanski, A. (2007). The dilution model: How additional goals undermine the perceived instrumentality of a shared path. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (3), 389-401 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119
Albarracin, D., Hepler, J., & Tannenbaum, M. (2011). General Action and Inaction Goals: Their Behavioral, Cognitive, and Affective Origins and Influences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (2), 119-123 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411402666