Choice and Freedom

By Marc Resnick
A related topic I blog about frequently is the Paradox of Choice.  It turns out that we are much better at making decisions when we have 4 options than when we have 24.  In theory, more options allow us to select a better combination of features and make better tradeoffs.  But the limitations on our cognitive capacity means that all we do is get frustrated, anxious, and afraid that we are going to miss out on a good choice because we didn’t have the time or memory to get to it.  Of course, having just one choice is also not a good thing because we feel constrained.  There have to be enough options so that we feel we were able to gain a benefit by choosing.
A marketing consultant whose book I recently read adds a cultural dimension to this.  He concludes that having more choices makes us feel more free, more American even.  So we happily deal with the stress and anxiety of having too many choices in order to feel more powerful.
Similar to this desire for freedom, he uses the seatbelt laws as a further illustration.  He looked at studies that showed people gruesome movies of car accidents where people were not wearing a seatbelt.  They measured the results and were shocked that FEWER people wore their seatbelts on the way home then had arrived with them on.  Somehow, the movies backfired.  He surmised that the people left thinking “they aren’t going to trick me with those scary movies” and rebelled against the idea.  Same thing with the slogan “Buckle up for Safety.”  They felt like they were being told what to do and their freedom was being constrained.  On the other hand, “click it or ticket” presents a free choice for drivers.  They are given the option of wearing a seatbelt or paying the fine.  As long as they have choice, they are happy to do the right thing, so seatbelt use went up.  Sounds stupid, but the results are hard to argue with.
So how do we apply this in the workplace?  We often enforce strict procedures and workflows because we have discovered that they are the best balance between quality, cost, and productivity.  But something else to think about is that workers will be more motivated if they feel they have some freedom and flexibility in their jobs.  This boost to morale could make as much of a difference in performance as your process design does.
So think about how to achieve both.  Give workers the freedom to choose but the knowledge and incentive to choose the best option for the company.