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The Choice: a social experiment in making decisions

What would you choose?

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Picture yourself alone in a mostly bare white room. In front of you are two nearly identical doors — you know that one leads to the exit, and you know that behind the other is a complete unknown. Which one would you choose?

Which door would you choose?

This question was at the heart of an experiment that Vox Creative was asked to run on behalf of Volvo. Because Volvo believes that understanding human decision-making helps them make better cars for their drivers, they wanted to understand why some are so much more willing than others to embrace the unknown.

While choosing the unknown certainly wasn’t easy for many of the experiment’s participants, a majority nevertheless made that choice — even those who might be expected to do otherwise, or who vocalized fear or uncertainty beforehand. The choice was each person’s own to make.


The Experiment

In total, we recruited over 100 individuals and asked them — alone or in pairs — to enter a room and pick between two doors that represented either the complete unknown (Door 1) and the escape from having to face that unknown (Door 2). The latter led directly to the exit.

Subjects 34 & 35 ponder the Choice.

Prior to our subjects entering the testing room, we worked to subtly ratchet up tension in ways approved by an expert consultant. For example, we had them sign a foreboding waiver, we prevented them from seeing or talking with any other participants that had run through the test, and we issued instructions just once via a recording that played over the room’s speakers. After those instructions were issued, the participants were left alone and given as much time as they needed to make their decision.

After their choice was made, we interviewed them to find out more about who they were and what was on their mind while they chose between the known and the unknown.


Our Observations

What we witnessed was a fairly overwhelming decision on the part of our participants in favor of Door 1 — about 77 percent of them went in the direction of the unknown. That number lines up with some studies that show that human beings are more likely to be optimistic. Other than that, though, the percentages revealed little. There were no strong predictors along demographic lines, whether it be gender, age, or income. Rather, every individual seemingly based their own choice on some complex interplay of probability assessment, emotion, and memory.

Subject 11 cited the “security of knowing” as his reason for picking the exit.

Among those that opted for the exit, one common thread was safety and security. For them, the unknown represented just one more risk in a world already full of them; commonly used words were “scary,” “terrifying,” and “stressful.” One participant who picked Door 2 later said, “I feel like people who don’t have to be as worried about safety in general and societal oppression — it’s easier for them to take risks and make unsafe choices. I’d just rather take the safe route.”

But the expressed desire for safety and security wasn’t always controlling. Other participants spoke at length about their own struggles — and, indeed, fear — and yet still chose what was behind Door 1.

Despite not feeling safe in society, Subject 50 chose the unknown.

The participants who chose the unknown seemed to possess a slightly wider variety of reasons for doing so. Several cited the idea of adventure — the unknown to them was a chance to explore further, to gain skills, to push the limits of their knowledge, or sometimes even just to talk to new people.

Subject 38 felt that choosing the safe route stymied her progress and her knowledge.

But for others — of sometimes surprisingly disparate backgrounds — the choice of the unknown represented a rejection of conformity. To them, the masses play it safe, making it imperative that they take the opposite route. One of the subjects said, “I’m true to myself, which is in itself a risk in today’s world. Because a lot of people tend to go with the flow of whatever’s around them.”

Subject 22 saw conformity in the world, and therefore chose the unknown.
Volvo/Vox Creative

There were those who chose the experience of the unknown for the experience itself, and those who chose the unknown simply because sitting and thinking about safety only spawned new doubts and risks. And for everyone who expressed an almost philosophical depth when describing their choice, there were others who were much more practical: a missed meal and a looming dentist’s appointment were other reasons we heard.

When the time comes, which door will you choose?
In the end, each participant made their own choice.

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