Study: Shoppers Make Better Decisions If They Don’t Think Too Much

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Consumers have plenty of choices in the marketplace. Too many choices, really. For instance, does Betty Crocker need five kinds of vanilla cake mix? Do shoppers really want to decide among 200 different shampoos filling an entire aisle of the store?

Too many options, it’s been shown, can lead to confused, ultimately less happy shoppers. But regardless of whether more choice is always better or not, consumers must make choices all the time. How does one choose wisely?

Generally speaking, the advice is always to make decisions rationally. The classic approach for deciding between different options—no matter if we’re talking about which smartphone to buy or which girl to ask on a second date—is to list the pros and cons of each possibility, and then painstakingly compare and analyze all the details. Another approach would be to simply go with your gut. And, as bizarre as it may sound, the latter approach often leads to better decision making.

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Taking a close look at experiments conducted by Cornell University scientists, the Wall Street Journal suggests that rationality is overrated. Instead, in many instances, it’s the “emotional brain” that helps consumers make smarter choices.

In one of the experiments, student volunteers were given a choice of two cars and asked to identify the one that’s most ideal to buy. An abundance of information was presented, with ratings for the vehicles in 12 different categories. One group of students was told to sift through the detailed data carefully before making a decision, while the other was instructed to decide based on what felt best.

Guess which group made smarter decisions? Scientists designed the experiment so that one of the cars was objectively more ideal, and it was the students focusing on feelings, rather than a rational analysis of the details, who decided correctly more often. Nearly 70% of the feeling-focused students went with the right car, as opposed to just 25% of the detail-focused group.

So perhaps consumers who are forced to pick among too many options, and who carefully weigh all the details before making a decision, are likely to miss the forest for the trees. Perhaps there are times when the wisest approach is to turn off one’s brain and purchase the item that feels right.

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Then again, let’s not get too carried away with this line of thinking. You have to assume that one reason Halloween spending by consumers is skyrocketing—expected to reach $6.9 billion this year, up from $3.3 billion as recently as 2005—is that it just sorta feels right.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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