The “what is better”-question can be a very useful question in counselling sessions. The client starts to mention something that is better and the counsellor asks questions like: ”What went better? How did you do that? How was that beneficial? How can you do that again in the future?”

Clients often are able to provide more examples of what is better than the counsellor would think possible. The question “What else is better” and “What else” may therefore be repeated several times.

However, is it better when the client comes up with 4 examples of what is better, than when she comes up with 2? I always thought it was good to keep on asking the question “what else is better”, even if it took the client longer to think and come up with something. Not anymore.. Because of the “psychology of availability.”

Paradoxically, the psychology of availability says that more positive examples are not always better than fewer positive examples…Why?

  1. people believe they cycle less frequently when they have to come up with more occasions in which they cycled, than when they have to come up with fewer examples.
  2. people are less certain of their choices when they have to come up with more reasons why they have made their choice
  3. people are less convinced a certain event could have been prevented when they have to list more ways in which the event could have been prevented
  4. people are less impressed by a car when they have had to list a lot of advantages of the car
  5. people who have been asked to give 12 examples of their own assertiveness value their general assertiveness more negatively than people who have had to give 6 examples of their own assertive behaviour.
  6. people who have been asked to give 12 possible improvements of a training course value that course more positively than people who have had to list 6 improvements

Counter-intuitive or what? How does this work? It turns out that fluency has a lot to do with it. The first few examples spring to mind relatively easily, but after the first few people find it harder to come up with more examples. The fluency in finding examples or arguments diminishes. Even though in the end they might come up with the requested 12 examples, the effort it took to think of those examples bothers them. They think: “If it was so hard to come up with those examples of when I was assertive, I can’t be very assertive at all”

Might this indicate that asking “what is better” is ok as long as the client can come up with examples easily? As soon as the client needs more time to think about what is better, could it be counter-productive to give more time to think about it and to repeat the question? The psychology of availability surely seems to point in that direction.

More is not always better?