Why You Buy What You Buy and Do What You Do: Because It’s Easy

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“Cognitive fluency,” in psychologist phraseology, is the human tendency to prefer things that are familiar and easy to understand. This tendency plays into just about every decision you make—what you deem beautiful, what political messages resonate, what products earn your loyalty (and dollars), and so on. It’s even been shown that the stocks of companies with easy-to-pronounce names outperform those of companies with names that are difficult to say.

A Boston Globe story discusses cognitive fluency—which I think of as a hassle-avoidance, please-dumb-it-down reflex—with several scholars who study its effects in every part of our lives. For example:

“Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent,” says Adam Alter, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School who co-wrote the paper on fluency and stock prices. “If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment.”

Where does this tendency toward fluency (or familiarity) come from? Apparently, we inherited it as a survival technique:

An instinctive preference for the familiar made sense in the prehistoric environment in which our brains developed, psychologists hypothesize. Unfamiliar things – whether they were large woolly animals, plants we were thinking of eating, or fellow human beings – needed to be carefully evaluated to determine whether they were friend or foe. Familiar objects were those we’d already passed judgment on, so it made sense not to waste time and energy scrutinizing them.

According to Norbert Schwarz, a leading fluency researcher, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc used to explain the evolutionary logic behind this tendency succinctly. “He’d say, ‘If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.’ ”

But just because something hasn’t eaten you yet, figuratively speaking, isn’t a reason to buy into whatever is being sold. The fact that an idea or product is familiar is not a good reason to believe it or buy it. Nonetheless, there are forces out there that play off of our blind spots and our tendencies to move away from anything that seems difficult or remotely complicated. From the Globe story:

The persuasive power of repetition, clarity, and simplicity is something that people who set out to win others’ trust – marketers, political candidates, speechwriters, suitors, and teachers – already have an intuitive sense of if they’re good at what they do. What the fluency research is showing is just how profound the effect can be, and just how it works.

So how does it work in everyday consumer life? Think about how—and why—you buy things, and you’ll probably have your answers.

Deciphering the mumbo jumbo of cell-phone plans is a major pain in the behind, as is monitoring your monthly minutes and text-message limits. So what do you do? You go with the unlimited plan. It may not represent the best value, but it’s easy to understand. At, say, a fast food restaurant, ordering a healthy(ish) meal that gives the most bang for your buck is more complicated than picking a pre-set meal deal. So what do you do? “Give me a Number 4 please.”

At the supermarket, most people tend to stick with brands of cookies, chips, detergent, and most other products that they know, rather than trying something unfamiliar. On road trips, people tend to make pit stops at the familiar fast food franchise instead of unknown mom-and-pop restaurants. And so on.

But by limiting your decisions to that which is familiar, you’ve missing out on all sorts of tastes and experiences. You may also be spending more than you need to, all for the sake of avoiding a few moments of thought.