Six of one, half dozen of the other: Suboptimal prioritizing for equal and unequal alternatives

Warren James, Amelia R. Hunt, Alasdair D F Clarke* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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It is possible to accomplish multiple goals when available resources are abundant, but when the tasks are difficult and resources are limited, it is better to focus on one task and complete it successfully than to divide your efforts and fail on both. Previous research has shown that people rarely apply this logic when faced with prioritizing dilemmas. The pairs of tasks in previous research had equal utility, which according to some models, can disrupt decision-making. We investigated whether the equivalence of two tasks contributes to suboptimal decisions about how to prioritize them. If so, removing or manipulating the arbitrary nature of the decision between options should facilitate optimal decisions about whether to focus effort on one goal or divide effort over two. Across all three experiments, however, participants did not appropriately adjust
their decisions with task difficulty. The only condition in which participants adopted a strategy that approached optimal was when they had voluntarily placed more reward on one task over the other. For the task that was more rewarded, choices were modified more effectively with task difficulty. However, participants were more likely to choose to distribute rewards equally than
unequally. The results demonstrate that situations involving choices between options with equal utility are not avoided, and are even slightly preferred over unequal options, despite unequal options having larger potential gains and leading to more effective prioritizing strategies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)486-503
Number of pages18
JournalMemory and Cognition
Early online date12 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


  • Decision making
  • Judgment
  • Reasoning


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