How do you make choices in your life? Even simple ones like chocolate cake or fruit salad for a snack? Are you completely rational about the process, calculating the costs and benefits properly before choosing (also known as the cognitive approach)? Or are you more likely to go by feel, allowing your emotions to guide the choice (the affective approach)? Traditionally, researchers have favored the rational model, but more recently the emotional side has been getting more attention. Regular folks may even argue that they use both approaches depending on the situation, even though they may not know which one predominates without their knowledge. But can your decision-making process, and thus the choices you make, be influenced by external conditions to the extent that you will switch from one mode to another? That was the question that drove two researchers in their quest to understand the process of making choices.
The primary question the researchers tried to answer was whether the decision process that people used to make choices was affected by how much their brain was being used. That is, when people are busy with something do they use a different process as compared to when they are not preoccupied?
The experiment was quite straightforward. Respondents completed some filler tasks in a room and were told that they would be given a snack for taking part in the study. When the filler tasks were done, respondents were told about a memory test. They were briefly shown a number to memorize and told to walk to another room at the end of the hall to recite that number to another experimenter. They were also told that along the way would be a snack station displaying a choice of snacks and they could indicate which one they preferred by taking an appropriate ticket. The major manipulation was that some people were given a two digit number to memorize and some were given a seven digit number to memorize. The snack options, which were not visible till the participant was standing at the snack station were a slice of chocolate cake and a fruit salad.
It turns out that those given the seven digit number to memorize were much more likely to choose the chocolate cake, while those who were given the two digit number were much more likely to choose the fruit salad. That is, when the brain is preoccupied with something, the person is not thinking rationally about the healthfulness of the choice. When it is not so occupied they make the rational, healthy choice. Furthermore the results were observed only when real options (actual snacks) were presented, not when pictures of snack were shown. In a follow-up experiment the researchers were able to show that people who described themselves as impulsive were much more prone to this behavior than those who tended to describe themselves as prudent.
The experiments show how much our choices are affected by external factors. In today’s multi-tasking world where people are often doing so many different things at the same time, there is a price to pay for it. While this research may show the effect on health related choices, it is not hard to imagine other effects such as those on financial decisions.
This research was conducted by Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing at Stanford University and Alexander Fedorikhin, Associate Professor of Marketing at Indiana University and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.