• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 02nd April, 2008

Duke's analysts say choice is good (but in small doses)

“Choice” is a potent word among western societies. A person with choices can control his or her own destiny; one who is denied choice is to be regarded as a prisoner living a miserably limited existence. So the argument goes. And plenty of educators – particularly those adhering to Montessori or Waldorf philosophies – motivate their students to learn by offering them choices.But is choice always a good thing? Research over the last thirty years generally supports the idea that it is beneficial. And a recent meta-analysis by Erika A. Patall and colleagues in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University in the US confirms that providing choice tends to boost motivation, effort, performance and a sense of competence. However, taken together, the evidence from the 41 studies analyzed contributes a more nuanced understanding. According to the Patall’s meta-analysis, choice is most motivating under these conditions:

  • Fewer choices are given. Optimally, between three and five choices are provided and the individual has the opportunity to make a sequence of choices, not just one. Study participants appeared to want options but didn’t want to have to make too many – too tiring!
  • There are no rewards. Rewards seem to rob individuals of the intrinsic reward of choosing. Participants who were rewarded felt they were being controlled.
  • The chooser is a child. The research suggests that children might value choices more than adults because they generally are offered fewer.
  • Choices are of less importance. Perhaps surprisingly, subjects were more motivated when they chose among options that were not vitally important to a given task. For example, study participants seemed to prefer to choose what color pen to use or what music to listen to while doing a task then how to perform the task itself. The researchers suggest this finding may reflect individuals’ interest in expressing themselves through their choices – but also a preference for making easier, less-taxing choices.
Such findings may give educators, researchers and questionnaire designers a better understanding of how to offer choices most effectively, according to Patall – because choice is not always the best choice.• Summary of “The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings” by Erika A. Patall, Harris Cooper, and Jorgianne Civey Robinson in Psychological Bulletin, March 2008, Vol. 134, No. 2, pp 270–300.

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