17 July 2013

Why You Want What You Want

We like to think that our choices are entirely the result of our preferences and sometimes restrictions such as budgetary. What we do not realize is the immensely powerful influence that the choice environment has on our decisions.

Let me explain briefly when the choice environment influences our choices and why we fail to recognize / admit that it does.

Let’s see when the choice environment plays a role.

Imagine a middle aged Italian lady named Cesarina. Her entire life she drank only Illy coffee. For her any other kind of coffee is an insult to her true Italian heritage. When Cesarina goes to buy coffee from the supermarket she buys only Illy coffee. Moreover, her very strong preexisting preference makes Cesarina to be immune to all the influences of the choice environment. It doesn’t matter how the coffee aisle and the shelves are arranged, Cesarina will always buy Illy Coffee.

I gave an example when the choice environment has no influence and I am sure that you have some very strong preexisting preferences of your own. But I bet that these are not many and quite often you were in a situation of having to choose in the absence of strong and preexisting preferences.

Did you ever buy a washing machine, microwave oven, TV set, on-line services (e.g. linked in account), mobile phone, laptops, tablets, olive oil etc.?

I am sure that at least one of these things you have bought. The main question is if you knew before starting looking / shopping for the product what you wanted? Did you?

Let’s take the example of a TV-set. Which of the two scenarios is more plausible: 
A. You knowing beforehand that you wanted a 81cm diagonal TV with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and LED technology, you ordered it and you are very happy with it. 
B.      You had a vague idea of how big it should be, you went to the store (may it be e-shop), browsed around and chose one that was not too big, not too small, within your budget and had a nice image?

If you agree that option B is more plausible, then you realize that your preference was not preexistent, but it was constructed on the spot. In this case the choice environment – the products in the store and how they were arranged and picked – significantly influenced your choice.

So, unless you have a very clear preexisting strong preference, there is a good chance that your choice is influenced by the choice environment.

Let’s see why we fail to recognize the influence of the choice environment.

Let’s continue with the TV set example and imagine that on your way to the parking lot, a very nice person stops you and asks why you picked that particular type of TV set.

Very likely you are completely unaware of the influences of the choice environment. Moreover, you might be a bit confused yourself on the things that lead to your choice. But now you have made the purchase and in order to simply feel comfortable with yourself, you come up with different reasons. For example, you might say that this TV has a large diagonal and it is decently priced, that the brand of the manufacturer is a prestigious one etc.

All of these might be true, but they had nothing to do with your choice. They are simply post-rationalizations. These are simply the explanations you give yourself for the already done action.

Another way of seeing post-rationalization is to think if these reasons would have predicted your choice before entering the store. Very likely the answer is No.

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