Hick’s Law and Decision-Making

· December 24, 2018

Decision-making is a complex process in which experience, emotions, and will come into play. This is why science has been studying the mechanisms that come into play when a person makes decisions for many years now. Hick’s law explains this process in terms of time.

Hick’s law is a principle discovered by William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman. It makes it possible to measure the time it takes a person to make a decision. It suggests that the more alternatives there are, the more time a person will need to make a decision. Now, said time follows a logarithmic pattern. In this regard, Hick’s law states that “The time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases”.

Hourglass representing the time aspect in Hick's law.

Hick’s law and its applications

The laws that came before Hick’s law arose at the end of the 19th century. J. Merkel discovered that, when a stimulus belongs to a larger group of stimuli, people take longer to respond.

Hick and Hyman conducted a series of experiments through which they were able to determine that it was possible to calculate the time it took someone to make a decision based on the number of serious alternatives they had. They expressed this through a mathematical formula.

Surprisingly, its main application has been in video games. Video game designers cut the necessary time to make decisions in a particular game in order to create tension or, on the other hand, they extend that time to ease the tension.

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

-Roy E. Disney-

Woman before two different pathways.

Time and success

Some people think that the more time they spend making a decision, the more likely they’ll be to choose the best option. However, this isn’t entirely true. We sometimes make decisions after thorough analyses and still end up making mistakes. The opposite also happens.

Hick’s law simply makes it possible to calculate the time it takes to make a decision through a universal mathematical formula. This means it’s applicable to all human beings. However, in order for the decision to be correct, it’s important to keep in mind four important aspects:

  • Experience: Experience is empirical knowledge. It’s generally more important than theoretical knowledge. This is perhaps the most relevant factor when it comes to making good decisions.
  • Good judgment: Good judgment is a mixture of common sense, reasoning, and intellectual maturity. People with good judgment know how to ponder situations realistically.
  • Creativity: Creativity allows people to take their knowledge and associate it with a concrete situation, thus leading to new approaches. A creative decision is one that is innovative.
  • Quantitative data: This aspect refers to the ability to process quantitative data involved in a situation where a person must make a decision. In other words, the incorporation of statistical evidence.

Practical aspects of Hick’s law

Hick’s law gives us, above all, valuable criteria for making decisions. As it points out, the greater the number of options, the longer it will take a person to decide. Therefore, an intelligent strategy would be to minimize the alternatives that are taken into account.

A good way to do this is by listing all the available options. Then, order them by the risk they imply or the issues they could cause. Additionally, specify the one that could benefit you the most. This is a basic risk analysis that may very useful for someone who feels stuck.

Indecisive woman.

The last thing to do is basically choose the option that presents a greater balance between the risks and the benefits. This keeps you from falling into that vicious circle where any decision seems plausible. It’s a fast and effective way to make somewhat complex decisions.