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Hick's law: what it is and what it tells us about decision making

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There are different laws to explain some basic principles of the functioning of our everyday world. These laws pick up patterns that frequently repeat (or appear to repeat) in many different areas. Most of these laws focus on describing simple aspects of life, but accurately represent what happens to us on a daily basis.

Intuition and observation can often lead to patterns that repeat themselves in daily life. Some of these best known everyday principles are the famous Murphy's Laws. Although there is no scientific evidence for these laws, it seems that the frequency with which they occur supports them.

These principles that seem to govern everyday reality usually bear the name of the person who formulated them. In today's article we know Hick's law, a principle developed by psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman in the study of decision making.

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What is Hick's law?

Studies have shown that in decision-making, as in other cognitive processes, not only our reasoning ability is involved. When deciding, different factors intervene, such as previous experience, subjective opinions, feelings and the will of the subject.

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But When making a decision, not only factors that have to do with our internal way of processing information intervene.; There are a series of characteristics of the information that we receive that can modify our decision. Hick's law relates the complexity of the information received with the response time in decision making.

Let's say we have to paint our house and we hesitate between white and gray to paint the walls. This decision implies two possibilities and we will spend some time to decide. Now we come to the store, and they have five different shades of white and seven shades of grey. What was initially a simple question now becomes a complex decision process. This scenario is an example of Hicks Law.

Hick's law explains the time it takes an individual to make a decision based on the possible options. In terms of results, the Hick-Hyman law describes a linear increase in reaction time (RT) as a function of the Informational entropy of response selection, which is computed as the binary logarithm of the number of alternatives of response.

What is Hick's law

Thus, the Hick-Hyman law assesses cognitive information capacity through experiments based on the choice reaction. As the number of options and their complexity increase, the decision time increases linearly..

Information entropy is a concept in information theory that indicates how much information is in an event. In general, the more certain or deterministic the event is, the less information it will contain. In other words, information is an increase in uncertainty or entropy.

Lastly, the time it takes to process a given number of bits in the Hick-Hyman law is known as the "information gain rate".

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History of Hick's Law

In 1885, J. Merkel discovered that the more elements there are in a set of stimuli, the longer the response time. This relationship between the number of stimuli and time was discovered by Franciscus Donders in 1868, who she observed that as the number of stimuli a person has increases, so does their reaction. Subsequently, psychologists noticed similarities between this phenomenon and information theory and began to conduct various investigations.

Hick designed an experiment to measure this relationship. To do this, he timed study participants how long it took them to say the name of the light after turning it on. In the first experiment there were 10 lights and 10 keys for each of the fingers, each corresponding to a lamp. Hick claimed that as the number of lights increased, the response time was proportional to the logarithm of the number of options.

hyman wanted measure the ratio of response time to the average number of choices. He also used a similar system for his experiment, arranging 8 lights in a 6x6 formation, each labeled with a word. He timed how long it took for the participant to say the name once the light was on. Hyman performed many other experiments in the laboratory. Hick found a linear relationship between reaction time and the amount of information being transmitted in the experiment.

  • Related article: ""Heuristics": the mental shortcuts of human thought"

Hick's Law Applications

Hick's Law is one of the key principles of modern marketing. In addition, its practical application is essential in the design of user experience and video games.

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If we extend the classic definition of Hick's law based on sales criteria, we see its usefulness in any sector that involves convincing the user to make a purchase. According to Hick's law, by increasing the number of options and the complexity of these, more decision time and, therefore, the less likely a person is to end up buying.

There is a well-known study in which participants were given to try between different jams to buy. One group had to choose between fifteen different varieties, and another group only between three. The study showed that those with fewer options ended up buying more frequently than those with more options.

Having to choose between too many options can lead to laziness, apathy, and even discouragement.. The mind has to work harder to process all the options, and if it's having a hard time making up its mind, it just won't. Instead, keeping things simple (but still offering a good option) can be more successful.

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User experience design

To offer a good user experience it is necessary, first of all, to find out the functionalities that will respond to the user's needs; Second, you need to guide users to the features they need most. If users get stuck in the decision-making process, they can get frustrated or leave the website. Hick's Law is applied in this second stage of user design, a number of basic principles are followed to help users navigate the page, including:

  • Minimize options when response times are critical to increase decision time.
  • Break complex tasks into smaller steps to decrease the cognitive load on users.
  • Avoid overwhelming users by highlighting recommended options.
  • Use progressive onboarding to minimize the cognitive load of new users.
  • Do not simplify to the point of abstraction.

Other applications of Hick's laws

Examples of Hick's Law can be found everywhere, not just in web and app design. Hick's law was used to determine the number of controls for microwaves and washing machines. K.I.S.S (Keep it Short and Simple) is also a design principle that was recognized in the 1960s for its effectiveness. The US Navy USA originally used the principle of K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple and direct) and its use became widespread in many industries. The principle of simplicity is key for a system to work in the best way.

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Hick's Law Exceptions

Hick's law is a simple idea, but it has some nuances. In a randomly sorted list, the more items in the list, the longer it takes to find the word being searched for. The reaction time increases linearly as the number of items in the list increases. But this law cannot be generalized, because other conditions may cause the reaction time to not be linearly tied to the logarithm of the number of elements in the list. For example, if the user has already decided what he is going to do before viewing the items, it will take her less time to choose than if he was viewing the items for the first time.

There are other situations where Hick's Law does not apply, such as when there are so many elements that the people feel overwhelmed, in which case reducing the number of items can confuse people. people.

Hick's law in everyday life

In conclusion, Hick's Law gives us an important rule when making decisions. As we have seen, the more alternatives available, the longer it takes a person to make a decision. Therefore, a good strategy for our daily lives when deciding would be to try to limit the available options.

For its implementation, risk analysis is a good way to eliminate alternatives. It consists of making a list of all the options and ordering them by risk or how difficult it would be to implement them. You can also indicate which options offer the lowest cost or the highest benefit. This would considerably reduce the time we spend making decisions in our daily lives.

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