Universals of Choice


This article was published in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, 75 (January and April 2018), pp. 76-83.

Universals of Choice

Joseph A. DeVito*

Universals are qualities or characteristics of a process or concept that are present in all instances. For example, if we consider the universals of language, we’d find that all languages have nouns and pronouns, all languages have a deep and surface structure, and all languages have vowels and consonants (Greenberg, 1963). A universal of choice, the subject of this paper, then, is a characteristic that is present in all choice-making acts.

     Along with many of the social sciences, communication is (and has been for at least the last 30 years) focused on identifying differences (mainly cultural and gender differences) and explaining how these differences influence communication and therefore why these differences need to be identified and incorporated into any theory of effective communication. In contrast, the search-for-universals approach focuses on identifying characteristics that any type of communication act has in common with all other instances of this type of communication.

Here we focus on choice making but it could be listening, nonverbal communication, small talk, public speaking, or any topic or subtopic of any field.  The topic can be broad (for example, interpersonal communication or General Semantics) or narrower (for example, making an apology or abstracting). The area to be explored and the specific purposes of the endeavor would determine the breadth of the specific topic chosen.

Choice making is important to study simply because it’s an inevitable part of life. You cannot live without making choices (Iyengar, 2011; DeVito, 2016b). Even when you refuse to make a choice, you’re act of refusal is itself a choice. Similarly, when you delay making a choice, you’re making a choice to delay the other choice. Even Hobson’s choice—often viewed as no choice—involves choice. The story—perhaps true, perhaps not—is that Thomas Hobson ran a horse rental stable and insisted that the renter take the next horse in line—seemingly providing no choice. But, of course, there was a choice—not among horses but between the next horse in line or no horse—a classic case of “take it or leave it”.  And, universals are important to identify simply because they are part of the description of a process or concept under study and thus add to our knowledge and understanding of the subject. That practical applications and skills can be derived from this study is an added bonus.

These two general approaches—the search for differences and the search for universals--complement each other. Each provides needed insight and helps pave the way for developing principles and skills for more effective communication or choice making.

     Universals are discovered inductively, from examining choice behavior. But since not all choices have been examined and there are many in the future that can’t be examined, perhaps it’s best to view “universals” as hypotheses to be examined. 

     Universals describe what is rather than what should be or could be. They are descriptions for understanding the nature of choice making rather than prescriptions for making better choices.

     With the help of the insights from a variety of choice and decision-making theorists (Iyengar, 2011; Schwartz, 2004; Heath & Heath, 2013), here then is an initial and very preliminary attempt to identify some of the universals of choice making.

Choices are future predictions, guesses, hypotheses. When you make a choice, it’s like placing a bet—you bet that the choice you’re making will prove to be a good one, the best one actually. Because choices are predictions, you can never be certain how they will turn out. The advantage of going through a rigorous analysis of the pros and cons of the available choices is that your predictions are more likely to come true and that’s essentially what you want when making a choice (Heath & Heath, 2013; Schwartz, 2004).

Choices involve the acceptance of negatives and the rejection of positives—as well as the acceptance of positives and the rejection of negatives. Let’s say you’re making a choice between Alpha and Beta.  If your evaluation is a fair one and if Alpha and Beta are truly competitive as indicated by your initial indecision, then they each have positive qualities and they each have negative qualities. If you select Alpha, you get its positive qualities but also its negative ones and of course, in your rejection of Beta, you are not getting its positive qualities.

Choices are unique. Each choice is different from every other choice; it is made in a specific context of time and place and that time and place are in a constant state of flux. So, even in “repeating” the choice at a later time, it’s different because the time and place have changed and of course the choice maker has changed—in great part from making the choice in the first place.

Choices are prone to bias. There are a variety of biases that get in the way of logical and effective choice making. Since there is probably no person who is not prone to bias of one kind or another, it seems fair to identify bias as a universal. A number of biases that can get in the way of effective choice making have been identified previously, and in some detail (DeVito, 2016a). So, in brief:

·       In the ambiguity bias, your choices are heavily influenced by the desire to reduce ambiguity.

·       In the bandwagon bias, you make your choice by following the herd, especially those you view as “attractive”.

·       In the anchoring bias, your choices are heavily influenced by what comes first.

·       In the confirmation bias, your choices are influenced by initial beliefs.

·       In the status quo bias, your choices are influenced against change.

Choices have constraints. Some choices are made with few constraints—there is almost total freedom to decide one way or the other. So, let’s say you’re wealthy and want to buy a car—your choices are limitless as to the car you buy—after all, you can afford any one of them, even that new Lamborghini. But you still need a car and so your choices have to be made among the available car choices. In other cases, your choices are much more limited and restricted. If you’re in the military, for example, you may choose to put on your left shoe before the right one but you may not choose the kind of shoes you put on.

Choices are reasonable. Or at least the choices you make seem reasonable at the time you make them. When you make a choice, you’re no doubt selecting the choice that you think at that time and in that situation is the best of the available choices. Things may change—and often do—and as a result your decision may prove to be extremely effective (you bought the right stock and are now extremely wealthy) or extremely ineffective (you bought the wrong stock and lost all your money). But, at the time you make the choice, you’re making the right choice.

Choices are purposeful. Choices have a purpose; they are debated and made to achieve some purpose, some aim.  Choice makers have an end result in mind. And, not surprisingly, purposes vary greatly in importance. Some choice purposes hardly seem like purposes; they are almost automatic and usually of little consequence and so we rarely notice them—the shirt you wear or the salad you order. Other choices are more important and involve more significant purposes—choosing a life time partner, selecting a job offer, determining when to retire, or relocating to another state or country. Some purposes are self-focused--what can I do to get that promotion--and others are other-focused—what can I do to help the homeless--and may be viewed as existing on a continuum—perhaps from selfish to altruistic.  So, although purposes vary widely, one or more purposes are always present.

Choices are difficult. All choices are difficult. But, there’s a continuum. Some choices involve very little difficulty and some involve a great deal. There are at least two reasons for choice difficulty. One source of difficulty is the similarity in the pros and cons of the available choices. When the choices are very similar, there is considerable difficulty; when the choices differ widely in their positive/negative qualities, the choice is less difficult. Another source of difficulty comes from the importance of the choice; unimportant choices are easier to make than important ones.

Choices involve risk. Choices, by their very nature, involve risk, specifically the risk of making a poor choice and, at the same time, the risk of not choosing the one you should have chosen (Ellsberg, 2001). The risk, then, is not only in making a bad choice, it’s also in not making a good choice. Some risks are so minor that they are not perceived as risks—for example, the restaurant you select for dinner is minor but still involves risk. Other choices are of course riskier—selecting a college or a major or a job or a house, for example.

Choices have consequences. Stephen Covey (2004, p. 70) once noted that “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.” And because the consequences cannot be chosen or predicted with complete accuracy, the choice maker is taking a risk. Sometimes, the consequences are only for the choice maker—the entrée to select, for example. Sometimes, and probably most of the time, the consequences involve other parties as well—for example, the decision to divorce or start a business or have a child. Some consequences are severe—the type of medical treatment you seek—and others are relatively inconsequential—the sneakers you buy.  And yet, even this seemingly obvious example needs qualification and illustrates an important principle of choice making and that is that even choices that seem insignificant and having only minor consequences, may in some situations prove very significant. The choice of new sneakers that you take with you on a 4-week safari, for example, may prove extremely consequential.

Choices are culturally influenced. Culture influences all aspects of communication and influences choice making in a variety of ways. Geert Hofstede’s (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010) typology of cultural differences posits, among other dimensions, that cultures differ in, for example, their primary orientations to individualism-collectivism, masculine-feminine, and restraint and indulgent. Those from an individualist culture are more likely to make choices that benefit the self, whereas those from collectivist cultures are more likely to make choices that benefit the group. Those from masculine cultures—those that emphasize assertiveness and power—will make choices that are consistent with this cultural orientation—in contrast to those from a feminine culture whose decisions would give primary attention to relationships. Those from restraint cultures will make choices that will be of primary value in the future—saving or going to college, for example, while those from indulgent cultures are more likely to make choices that will give pleasure and satisfaction in the present—buying that expensive suit or cutting classes to go to the beach, for example.

Choices are influenced by personality. Not surprisingly, the personality of the choice maker will influence the types of choices made. As already noted, choices involve risk but people vary in the degree to which they are willing to take risks. At the extremes are those who are risk takers and those who are risk aversive. Risk takers are likely to make choices that involve greater risk, going all-in in poker or betting one’s last dollar on a horse. Some are risk aversive and prefer to hold on to the chips and the money for fear of losing it. And, some choice makers are maximizers and others are satisficers (Simon, 1956). In making a choice, maximizers spend an enormous amount of time analyzing the pros and cons of each and every choice, determined to make exactly the right choice, to maximize their benefits. On the other hand, are satisficers—a term coined by Simon—who aim to make a choice that will be satisfying, that will suffice.

Choices are influenced by socio-economic status.  Like psychological influences, there are also socio-economic influences. At the most obvious level, the money that people have enables them to have a wider array of choices than those without such financial resources. So, in planning a vacation, wealthy people have many more choices--of location, accommodations, length of stay, and just about everything that goes into a vacation. Those of more limited means, are similarly more limited in their possible choices. Persons who are well educated will likely spend more time evaluating choices and will be less impulsive and perhaps less prone to bias than those with less education and knowledge.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that the culture, personality, and sociology of the individual will conspire to influence choice making—the person from an individualistic culture who is a wealthy risk taker is going to make and evaluate choices very different from someone from a collectivist culture who is poor and risk aversive.


The universals identified here are surely not the only ones that could be identified—maybe even not the most important. And likely some will disagree that those noted here are in fact universals. But, as already noted, this is a preliminary attempt—a discussion starter—to identify some features that are common to all choice-making behavior and that hopefully will advance our understanding of this crucial process, a process that George Eliot called “the strongest principle of growth.”



Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. NY: Free Press.

DeVito, J. A. (1996). Brainstorms: How to think more creatively about communication (or about anything else). NY: Longman.

DeVito, J. A. (2016a). Biases in making choices. Etc.: A Review of General Semantics 73, 314-320.

DeVito, J. A. (2016b). Making choices. Etc.: A Review of General Semantics 73, 173-179.

Ellsberg, D. (2001). Risk, ambiguity, and decision. NY: Taylor & Francis, 2001. 

Greenberg, J. H., ed. (1963). Universals of language. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T, Press.

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. NY: Random House/Crown.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.

Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. NY: Hatchette/Twelve.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. NY: Harper Perennial.

Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63 (2), pp. 129-138.


*Joseph A. DeVito, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus, Hunter College, City University of New York.


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