Too Many Options Make Complicated Decisions Harder

March 22, 2016   Posted by: The Federal Front Door Team

Last week, we detailed the need for transparency in government so that the public can “see” the process they’re undergoing when they’re interacting with federal agencies and programs. Today, we’ll talk about how choice overload affects decision-making. If you’d like to read the complete series, start here.

The burden of choice overload

Sometimes, the government presents situations with so many options, it’s hard to know which is the best. To share just one example we heard, one of our interviewees described receiving hundreds of advertisements for Medicare Part C insurance plans. As she leafed through them, she quickly became overwhelmed. She ended up choosing the plan that had the most attractive brochure.

Choice overload comes in another form, too: situations where it’s hard to determine the consequences of picking a particular option. In these situations, people may be selecting from a small number of options, but they’re unable to figure out which will benefit them the most. One interviewee described gathering a group of his closest friends to help him figure out when, given his earnings and health, he should start drawing on social security. Despite their collective knowledge, they had trouble coming to a definitive conclusion. In the end, this person ended up drawing his Social Security benefits when he turned 62. His reasoning was that the program might become insolvent, so he had better take advantage of it while it still existed.

Our interviewees appreciated having tools that made complicated choices easier. Several people mentioned employer-provided Social Security calculators as vital for making decisions about when to draw retirement benefits. Others appreciated when senior center staff broke down the differences between Medicare plan options for them. Participants enjoyed choice, but they wanted help determining which choice was the best for them.

Later this week, we’ll detail what we learned about trust, and how people decide to trust government services.

The Federal Front Door Team is made up of members from USAGov and 18F teams.

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