Evaluating Choices in Mediation

Evaluating choices (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Mediation is a decision making process.  The question for each party in a mediation is whether and how to settle.  And it is the job of the professionals in that process (i.e., the mediator and attorneys for the parties) to assure that choice options are presented to the parties effectively.

A research paper accumulates a variety of studies on how people process choices [Fn. 1].  What follows is a summary of their findings.

Examining Choice Options Simultaneously v. Sequentially

People can examine choice options one at a time (sequentially) or all together (simultaneously). Here are two illustrations:

  1. A person choosing a health insurance plan can go to, (i) each provider’s website to view plans separately, or (ii) healthcare.gov to view all plans together; and
  2. A recruiter can, (i) evaluate the resume of each applicant individually, or (ii) lay them all out and compare specific attributes.

Simultaneous Examination

Viewing options together nudges people to compare and contrast the options and focus on differences.  This facilitates a detailed comparison because all attributes are simultaneously in front of the decision maker.

Here’s an example: viewing common and unique symptoms of two diseases together focuses on unique symptoms in diagnosis.

Sequential Examination

Viewing options sequentially, by contrast, makes a detailed comparison more difficult because other options are not immediately visible.

People evaluate a sequentially-presented option based on information provided about that option.  They then compare the evaluation of that option with either an internal reference point or their memory about other options.

Positive Effects of Simultaneous Evaluation

The authors of the research paper identify multiple research efforts that demonstrate the positive effects of simultaneous evaluation.  Here are examples.

—Objectively-Best Option

When people view options all at once, they identify an objectively-best option by in-depth evaluation.  They do this much better than when they view the same options sequentially.

  • In one study, participants chose among a series of four inferior and one best options (one example is a supplier with the best price for a consumer product). Participants who viewed each option together were more successful in identifying the best option than were those who viewed the options one at a time.
  • In a lineup, police can test an eyewitness’s recognition by either a simultaneous lineup (e.g., six people, including the suspect, presented side-by-side) or a sequential lineup (e.g., six people presented one at a time). Eyewitnesses are better able to identify a person in the simultaneous lineup than in the sequential lineup because the former allows a better focus on distinctive attributes.
  • In one study, participants were asked to choose one lottery from each of ten pairs of lotteries, which were presented either simultaneously or sequentially.  Participants who viewed all pairs of lotteries together were more likely to exhibit consistent risk preferences (i.e., choosing all safe options or all risky options) than those who viewed each pair sequentially.  Thus, they were better able to express their risk preferences when making risky choices.


Participants who viewed wine options sequentially, in one study, were less satisfied with their choice than those who viewed the same wine options simultaneously.  In the sequential format, people considered each wine option against an imagined better option (i.e., an internal reference point) and hoped to encounter such a better option subsequently.  That reduced their satisfaction with the choice they made.

Negatives of Simultaneous

No approach is perfect.  Studies have identified the following negatives for the simultaneous approach.

—Disregarding Common Information

One study shows that the simultaneous approach leads people to focus on differences between options and disregard common information that may be important.  For example, when information contains both numbers and a scale for interpreting that number, people often focus on the numbers while disregarding the scale: e.g., participants judge the difference between 700 and 900 on a 1000-point scale as larger than the difference between 7 and 9 on a 10-point scale more frequently when viewing options simultaneously than sequentially.

Participants in another study were shown three options of college dorm rooms, simultaneously.  Each option had unique positive features but shared negative features. When evaluating these options, participants focused only on the unique positive aspects of each newly encountered option but paid little attention to the common negative aspects .

—Compromise Effect

A study shows that, when faced with difficult trade-offs, participants tend to choose a compromise option (i.e., they choose a hotel, amid varying amenities, with the middle rating on those amenities), rather than making a reasoned choice.  This compromise effect of settling for the middle is heightened when people view options simultaneously rather than sequentially.   

—Choice Deferral

One way to resolve difficult choices is to defer the choice.  That’s a bad thing, of course, when a choice is needed.  And participants who viewed equally attractive options simultaneously were more likely to defer the choice than those who viewed the same options sequentially.

Additional Negative of Sequential

In addition to problems noted above, sequential evaluation suffers from the order effect (i.e., preferring later-viewed options).  For example:

  • In Eurovision Song Contest and World Figure Skating Contest results, judges’ evaluations of contestants increased with the contestants’ order of appearance;
  • In one study, when participants were presented with equally appealing options, such as four chocolate cakes, they rated the options appearing later more positively; and
  • When options are presented together, such order effects greatly reduce or are completely eliminated.


Mediators and attorneys for parties in a mediation session should take heed of the findings summarized above in helping parties process the choice options available to them.


Footnote 1.  Choosing Among Options Presented Sequentially Versus Simultaneously, by Shankha Basu of University of Leeds, and Krishna Savani of Nanyang Technological University, published by Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28 (1). pp. 97-101 (December 26, 2018).

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