Saturday, October 31, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 -- Decisions are Made Largely By the Unconscious

You are thinking of buying a TV. You do some research on what TV to buy and then you go online to purchase one. What factors are involved in this decision making process?

It's not what you think -- I cover this topic in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? You like to think that when you make a decision you have carefully and logically weighed all the relevant factors. In the case of the TV, you have considered the size of TV that works best in your room, the brand that you have read is the most reliable, the competitive price, whether you should get blu-ray, etc etc. But the research on decision-making that has been done, especially the recent research, shows that although you want to think that your decision-making is a conscious, deliberate process, it's not. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing.

Unconscious decision-making includes factors such as:

What are most other people buying (social validation): "I see that a particular TV got high ratings and reviews at the website"

What will make me stay consistent in my persona (commitment): "I'm the kind of person that always has the latest think, the newest technology."

Do I have any obligations or social debts that I can pay off with this purchase (reciprocity): "My brother has had me over to his house all year to watch the games, I think it's time we had them over to our place to watch"

and on and on.

Don't Confuse Unconscious with Irrational or Bad. I take exception with Dan Ariely and his book, Predictably Irrational. Most of our mental processing is unconscious, and most of our decision-making is unconscious, but that doesn't mean it's faulty, irrational or bad. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of data (11,000,000 pieces of data come into the brain every second!) and our conscious minds can't process all of that. Our unconscious has evolved to process most of the data and to make decisions for us according to guidelines and rules of thumb that are in our best interest most of the time. This is the genesis of "trusting your gut", and most of the time it works!

So What To Do? -- The next step is to think about what this means for people who design things like websites, where you are providing information and/or engaging customers to make a decision. This is, of course, the topic of my book, but let's hear from you. If we know that people are making decisions unconsciously, rather than consciously, what are some strategies we should employ at the website to encourage them to engage?

And for those of you who like to read, great books on this topic are:

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer -- The BEST book on the topic of decision-making in general.

Strangers to Ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson -- A little bit more academic, but still a great book.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

and of course

Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?


Dan Collins said...

Interesting post - Was the use of 'make' instead of made in the first line for cognitive dissonance or merely a typo? I disagree a little with your 'go with the gut intuition because it is usually right' premise though. If that were the case we humans would have less difficulties because our decisions, which are almost always gut decisions. The decisions would not cause us so much "stuff" to undo or do better.
Trust your gut may be good for some but I believe not for all, we have a history as a species of invention and progress yes, but also some pretty nasty egocentric gut decisions. Thanks for a good read though - Dan Collins

Susan Weinschenk said...

Hi Dan,

It was a typo!! Thanks for alerting me. Yes, trusting your gut can sometimes get you into hot water, but there have been some great analyses that show that most (not always) of the time those rules of thumb work. Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide describes that research well. And whether it's true or not, I think it's the way we are. I'm not at all sure we can change the way we make decisions. I'm still working on that idea.

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