Ever found yourself in a situation where you’re struggling to make a choice between a number of options?
Then you already know Hick’s Law.
The psychology behind making choices
A British psychologist, William Edmund Hick conducted a series of experiments exploring the time it takes a person to choose between several options.
His finding was that the time it takes to make a decision is directly proportional to the number of options available.
So more the more choices, the longer it takes to make a decision.
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What does this mean to everyday decision making?
Simply put, it means that how long it takes us to choose which pizza to order is dependent on how many pizzas we have to choose from. If there’s a menu of five, it may take us only two minutes to choose.
Double the number of menu items to ten, and it will take us around four minutes to make the choice.
Of course, these are average numbers, and there can be individual variations.
But when we’re not ordering pizza, but rather making choices in scuba diving. Hick’s Law also comes into play.
The discovery that processing time increases with the amount of stimuli means that we shouldn’t burden ourselves with unnecessary choices of action at any given time, for instance by having several courses of action in case of an emergency.
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And in case of an emergency, you’d quickly do a valve shut down and switch to the other regulator. But if you also bring a pony bottle and a spare air-type backup bottle, making the choice between them can actually take so long that you might create a critical situation.
So Hick’s Law can be used as an argument for bringing the equipment we need, and no more.
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Often, on dive trips, we see divers who seem to dive with the attitude that double-redundant backup is no more than a good start, and they carry several extra backups of everything.
Aside from the cost, the weight carried, and the fact that so much dive gear will make you much less streamlined in the water. There’s the added effect that the amount of choice you have in an emergency can actually make you react slower, adding to the danger.
If you feel the need to bring loads of backup gear (and sometimes this is prudent, such as deep cave dives and other advanced dives), you should always have a well-rehearsed step-by-step process of use.
With the air example used prior, a process could be:
In case of an Out-Of-Gas situation
- Switch to alternate regulator, close empty cylinder’s valve
- If secondary cylinder is also empty, or regulator doesn’t work, switch to pony bottle
- If this runs out or for some other reason isn’t functional, switch to spare air
This way, you create a situation of consecutive redundant options and steps to be followed, not choices to be made.
Because, as Hick found, more choices is not always better.
Of course, the scenario above is extreme, but it is used only to demonstrate a point: bring the gear you need, and only what you need, and practice your backup procedure until they’re second nature, not choices.
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Hick’s Law is sometimes also called the Hick-Hyman Law, after Ray Hyman, a renowned psychology professor, who contributed to the studies when he was still a student.