Pack Your Bags, We’re Headed For….? Planning a Vacation in an Age of Overload
You have too many devices, too many apps, and way too much email. You are so overloaded by information, so that last thing you need is ‘vacation choice’ overload. If you are considering what to do this summer, you know exactly what I mean.
How do you pick your summer vacation destination? Maybe it starts with the selection of a destination, followed by a significant amount of Internet research (and interrupted by a lot of YouTube videos digressions?). Then, maybe you deliberate with the family or seek recommendations from friends. You make a decision and then, laser-focused, you look for the best price/value. Bingo. Pack your bags, you’re ready to roll.
Sounds simple. And with so much on the line, like a blown summer vacation you will never hear the end of, this is exactly the kind of rational process you should follow.
But we all know that us humans are far from rational when it comes to making buying decisions. Our buying processes and decisions are peppered with preconceptions and biases. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman popularized common buying biases in his best-selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” In this book, Kahneman outlines the ‘dual-system theory’ for decision making, in which, people employ two distinct cognitive processes or ‘systems’ when making decisions, depending on the situation. System 1 is an intuitive, rapid, automatic, and effortless process while System 2 is a rational, slower, deliberate, and effortful process.
System 1 is used in decisions like solving simple math problems or picking a chess move, while System 2 is used to focus attention on listening to someone in a noisy room or evaluating the relative advantages of one refrigerator over another. So, it would seem natural that we would employ the more rational System 2 when deciding what to do for vacation.
Not so, says a new study in the Journal of Travel Research. According to this study, the way we pick a vacation is more complicated than we might think. The study concludes that “affect, intuition, and other subjective and situational factors often drive tourists toward decisions that do not provide optimal value or are rational.” This is due, in part, to the three root causes of information overload, which I discussed in a previous article; namely, too much information, not enough time to process the information at hand, and poor information quality.
1. Too much information: Anyone who has done even a cursory search for vacation destinations can attest to the infinite quantity of (conflicting) information available on everything from airfares, hotel rates, and the quality of tourist sites. Before you even click through to a second travel site, you are already overwhelmed. Also, the number of attributes that have to be considered to evaluate a vacation option, makes it difficult to compare one option to another.
2. Not enough time — even if you limit the number of sites to search, you will quickly find yourself burning through evenings (and work time) trying to narrow your choices. Just last week, it took me about 3 hours to book a hotel room for the weekend…and that is after I already picked a hotel. I was just looking for the best offer.
3. Poor information quality — Even when you locate something interesting, trying to compare options across sites and evaluate the quality of traveler recommendations is really tough.
This information overload, coupled with a high risk for failure, initiates another human tendency… risk aversion. We become scared that we will make a mistake. So, what do we do? Often, the answer is… we do nothing. Think about this for a moment. How many times have you not made a decision because you felt overwhelmed by the number of choices and the risk of making a poor choice? Sound familiar? If this has happened to you, you can at least solace in the fact that you are not alone. Studies show that when presented with too many choices, people usually opt for the least risky option, which is….do nothing. The predilection to do nothing under the stress of choice overload has been the subject of many studies and was popularized in the 2004 book Paradox of Choice by psychologist Barry Schwartz.
More recent research suggests our reaction to choice overload may be a bit more complex. A 2010 article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, entitled, “Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload.” looked at 50 choice overload experiments and found that more choices didn’t always make it harder to make a decision, but it often did. Interestingly, poor information quality, a dearth of time available to make a decision, and the similarity of options were found to contribute to decision paralysis.
Based on the conclusions of this article, here are three strategies for ensuring a worry-free, guilt-free vacation selection process:
· Narrow down your choices by first evaluating and picking one travel site and then focusing on that site. This reduces the overload associated with evaluating similar vacation options across different sites, where each option is presented with a huge number of disparate attributes.
· Employ simple decision heuristics, such as ‘satisficing,’ which suggest you choose the first option which exceeds a basic set of expectations. So, first decide what’s most important (like hotel and attractions) and what is less important (like quality of golf courses and local restaurants). When the primary set of expectations is fulfilled, plunk down your credit and stop looking for more options. Other heuristics include picking a default location if you can’t decide, limiting the amount of time you dedicate to the search up front, and starting by eliminating less-optimal choices rather than looking for the best option first.
So, fight the urge to find the ‘best’ option and be willing to accept a merely satisfactory one. The pressure to find the optimal vacation choice can produce high levels of stress. Some studies find that the degree of overload experienced is related to a person’s need to later justify why they made their selection. With so many similar, but hard to compare options, it can be difficult to articulate why one option is better than another one.
I would like to offer one final strategy. Ignore your spouse, as well as your friends and relatives, who will be sure to point out that you made the biggest mistake of your life with your vacation choice…
…But, buyer’s remorse overload is the subject for another day. In the meantime, enjoy your vacation; happy trails.