Choice blindness – what can we tell customers about their decisions?


Phil Barden, managing director of Decode Marketing, reveals how “choice blindness” can affect the quality of insight marketers receive from consumer surveys.

It seems like the most natural thing in the world. If we want to know how important different product features are and how they should be developed, or how convincing a new ad is, then why not ask those in the target market?

Behind this lies the assumption that customers are clear about their decisions and can voice their opinions.

However, as Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology, remarked in 1977, “our research showed that people have little, or no, introspective access to their decisions”.

Recent studies into so-called ’choice blindness’ have got to the bottom of this phenomenon to show what people really know about their decisions – with exciting implications for marketing.

Let’s look at a typical experiment in this area of research. Test subjects are shown two photos of different people and asked to decide which one they think is the more attractive. They are then asked to justify their decision.

The catch? The photos were switched before being handed over, so the subject got the photo of the person they didn’t choose. But 75% of participants didn’t notice the switch -and subsequently gave a detailed explanation justifying their choice.

You can see a BBC report on this experiment here.

In a recently-published paper in the journal Cognition, scientists studied whether choice blindness only occured when looking at faces or whether there was a more general effect. Instead of faces, test subjects were shown product ranges of jams and teas in a supermarket. Again, they were asked to choose which one looked best and were asked to confirm their decisions having tried the products.

As in the previous experiment, their choices were switched without them knowing. Only around 20% of the participants noticed the switch – and this was even the case with very different varieties like Bitter Grapefruit versus Apple and Cinnamon. Subjectively, the subjects were very sure that they could clearly distinguish between varieties -and, again, they gave detailed accounts to justify their judgements. This film shows the jam experiment, click here.

The first implication from these insights into choice blindness is that we should observe actual behaviour, rather than rely on the motivations people claim for their behaviour. According to a study by one American consultancy, we should give up advertising because the majority of those consumers who they asked stated that they weren’t affected by it.

But it’s long been known that people are unable to describe, or explain, the effect of influences, for example advertising, on their behaviour. Nevertheless, we persist in asking them.

If we want to determine the effectiveness of different touch points on sales, we must look at exactly how consumers use them. We cannot simply ask, “how important is advertising/packaging/website to you when thinking about buying?”; because, as choice blindness confirms, people are, for the most part, ’blind’ about their own decisions.

Consumers buy products to attain certain functional and psychological goals -without this context, consumer opinion is mostly of little significance. To increase the validity of survey responses we must ensure that the questions are as relevant as possible, and that the respondents are as involved as possible.

One way to do this, for instance, would be to always state explicitly what concrete goal can be attained by using the product or pack -because little is more relevant for the brain than the accomplishment of a goal. If we want to reposition our product range using a new pack design, it’s important to integrate the (functional or psychological) goal in each question about the product.

Instead of asking, ’which body lotion would you rather buy?’, it’s better to ask, ’which body lotion would you rather buy if you want daily skin care?’; or ’which body lotion would you rather buy if you want to pamper and spoil yourself?’

The more context we can provide around a question, the less likely it is that the answers we receive will be tainted by choice blindness.

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