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In many areas of life we have a choice between multiple options: if we are hungry and we want to go out to eat, we have a number of places to choose from (McDonalds, etc). However, we also still have the 'Zero Choice' (my terminology) of not eating out at all and getting food some other way.

In my personal life, I've noticed (perhaps falsly) that a fair number of people, once they've made a general choice (in the example: eating out), they disregard the 'Zero Choice' (not eating out) and become fixated on the sub-choices (where to eat out).

Is there a noticable difference in mental activity between people who don't consider the 'Zero Choice' and people who do?

Original Question:

In my life I've noticed that people rarely see the 'nothing' choice. Rather than choosing this or that, there is also the choice of neither and both. People I've interacted with often weigh their both, this, and that options fairly well, but many completely miss the neither/nothing option.

More specifically, I've seen this in a couple girlfriends I've had and a couple guy friends also. When trying to decide what to do, they'll settle on a type of activity (active/passive -> general category -> couple options) and then choose between a couple options. However, rarely in these options do they include the idea of something completely different. Meanwhile, this is something I do without thinking; other options are always present to me, and I have no difficulty in seeing, weighing, or choosing the neither option.

These are poor examples and for that I apologize; but is this a recognized phenomenon? What neural differences are there between people who process the nothing option and people who don't?

Has this even been researched at all? Cursory Googling (the most available to me right now) has revealed nothing; I could be searching for the wrong thing though...

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I think this question is borderline self-help and thus off-topic. I also don't see a strong research effort in formulating this question. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 8 '12 at 18:41
I'm somewhat unclear on what the "zero choice" is... Can you come up with a better example, Ben? –  Josh Gitlin Feb 8 '12 at 19:05
The same reason non-scientists love to ignore the null-hypothesis I suppose... –  Ben Brocka Feb 8 '12 at 19:15
I tried to reformulate the question to be more clear and less subjective/self-help. There still isn't a strong research effort, mostly because I don't really know what I'm looking for. If someone can give me some established terminology or ideas as a starting point, however, I'll try and come back with something more concrete... –  BenCole Feb 8 '12 at 19:45
I didn't -1 it; but here are a few things to consider: It's an assumption that there are "types of people" who ignore the zero choice, rather than it being a decision making strategy that can be used. What do you mean by a difference in mental activity (at the time of making the decision? or in general?)? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 8 '12 at 23:53
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

More generally, you are asking about a common tendency to substitute a sub-set of alternative actions for the entire set without realizing it.

Beyond the contribution of pure habit, it seems to be related to several common decision making biases, including attentional bias and focusing effect, though it doesn't exactly match any. I don't recall seeing this investigated directly.

"Zero choice" is a poor choice of terminology, it evokes the "null hypothesis" (as Ben Brocka alluded to in the comments), which in decision making usually means "do nothing", not a call to consider a broader set of alternatives.

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I came across the Wikipedia article for the Anchoring Effect and was going to add it as a new answer, but then I noticed you had already referenced it as the 'focusing effect' and I had somehow simply missed that. Thanks again for the good answer! –  BenCole May 1 '13 at 14:26
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I'm reminded of the Gestalt idea of "functional fixedness," which, as defined by Wikipedia, "is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used." When functional fixedness occurs, individuals get caught up in that particular use and ignore other alternatives. That's almost what's happening here; one gets caught up in the choice (traverses down the flowchart, if you will) and doesn't consider alternatives.

It's also possible (although I don't have any evidence on this) that it's cognitively less demanding to weigh similar options (e.g., Restaurant A vs. Restaurant B) than different ones (e.g., Restaurant vs. Dinner At Home).

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