The Psychology of choice: How we make decisions

Psychology of Choice

How many decisions do you make about food in a day?

3? 10? 50? You may be surprised to know it’s 226.

So, if you make 226 decision about food in day, how many decisions do you think you make about everything, in a typical day? 

35,000! It’s a lot isn’t it?

You’re probably a bit skeptical about that figure. After all, wouldn’t you know if you were making that many decisions? Well, thankfully, most of these thought processes are carried out by what we call the system 1 part of the brain. It’s the part that we’re not consciously aware of, so these decisions are instinctive, intuitive and automatic.

System 1 vs System 2

In contrast, system 2 decisions are those that we are consciously aware of. When we talk about why we’ve made a decision, this is the system we’ll access. System 2 thinking is more rational, logical, takes more effort and it’s much slower.

Which system makes us happier in decision making?

Well to some extent this depends on the decision being made. When choosing a bank account, you’re more likely to use system 2 and to be happy with the decision. When making simple choices (such as buying towels), people are satisfied when they consider the decision (system 2).

However, when it comes to more pleasure seeking choices you may be better utilising system 1.

The evidence for this comes from a study conducted by Dijksterhuis who analysed people’s happiness when shopping for furniture in Ikea. Dijksterhuis found that the longer people spent analysing their options, the less satisfied they were with their decision. Furniture shoppers were more satisfied with their purchase when they didn’t think at all and just listened to their emotional brains. 

Choice is more difficult when there’s lots of it

People love choice! Ask anyone if they’d prefer a smaller number of options or lots and everyone will say the more the better. This is very ingrained in our culture, and that’s because we believe that choice equals freedom, and therefore the more choices we have, the more freedom we have.

There’s a big problem with this. Numerous studies (Iyengar, Schwartz) have proven that the more choice people are given, the less capable they are of making a choice. This is called The Paradox of Choice (there’s a great book by Barry Schwartz of this name if you want to know more). When there is so much choice that we find it impossible to decide, this is called decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis

What’s your decision making style? Maximisers vs Satisficers

Sparks et al (2012) discovered that how you go about making decisions depends on your decision making style. They categorised decision making styles into two types; Maximisers and Satisficers. Maximisers spend lots of time analysing all the different options and are highly concerned with making the best choice. They’re therefore more likely to experience buyers remorse. Satisficers, on the other hand, are easier to satisfy. They have a set of criteria that their purchase needs to meet and as soon as they find something that matches that criteria, they’re satisfied. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the best.

Maximizer vs Satisficer

These styles of decision making are not rigid – you may find that you are mostly a satisfier, but when making larger purchases or a specific type of purchase, your style may change to a maximiser. Satisficers are more likely to maximise when a decision involves the happiness of others (holiday, care home), or a large financial purchase. Choice then becomes much more difficult. Important decisions take more time and effort and you therefore want that effort to be rewarded with a satisfying result. 

Our decisions can be influenced very easily

When you’re consciously making decisions using system 2, you may think you’re being logical and that you can’t be influenced by how information is presented to you. However, our behaviour is very easily influenced by sometimes quite minor changes.

We spend up to 100% more when paying by card vs cash

Over the years there’s been a steady increase in spending and debt. This correlates with the increased adoption of card payments. To investigate this, a study was conducted by Prelec and Simester. They found that when people paid by card, as opposed to using cash, they would spend up to 100% more. Why is this? Well it’s because when you buy with cash, the purchase involves a physical loss that you can physically see and tangibly feel in your lighter wallet. Paying by card hides this sense of loss. You don’t feel the loss, so you spend more money.  Our brains overvalue immediate gains (that new pair of shoes) at the cost of future expenses (high interest rates, less cash, increased debt). The system 1 emotional brain doesn’t understand things like interest rates or debt repayments – we’ll figure out how to pay for it later.

Our choices are influenced by how information is framed

There have been several interesting studies conducted that evidence the extent of how much we’re influenced simply by presenting the same information differently.

Consumer decision making

Which would you choose?

In an experiment on meat messaging (Irwin & Gaeth, Gary, 1998) 75% lean was valued significantly more than 25% fat. Interestingly, this persisted when the meat was eaten too, so the presentation of this information also affected the subjective experience of eating the meat.

Did you know that twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80% chance of their surviving, versus a 20% chance of dying? It is the framing of the choice that affects our perception of it, and in turn affects what we choose.

Adding a slightly worse option can help people to decide

Imagine the following… You have two options. A trip to Rome or a trip to Paris. Can your decision be influenced by being offered another choice that isn’t as good? Yes of course!

In a study by Tversky, people were offered to choose either a trip to Paris (option A) or a trip to Rome (option B). They had a hard time choosing. They were then offered 3 choices instead of 2: a trip to Paris with free breakfast (option A), a trip to Paris without breakfast (option A-), or a trip to Rome with free breakfast (option B). Now the overwhelming majority chose option A, the trip to Paris with free breakfast.

Why? The rationale is that it is easier to compare the two options for Paris (because they’re more similar) than it is to compare Paris and Rome (they’re more different). So if you add a slightly worse option that is similar to A (called A-), then it’s easy to see that A is better than A-, hence why people choose that option. 

Decision Options

We want choice, but when we get it, we may not like it

If you’re ill in the future, would you want to be able to choose your treatment? Most people do. However, when people are ill and have that choice, most people don’t want to choose. Have you ever had this experience with a healthcare professional? 

Health UX Psychology

65% who didn’t have cancer, said if they got it, they’d prefer to choose their treatment. Of people who have cancer, 88% prefer not to choose. This is a huge lesson for anyone working in the field of human behaviour: We need to focus on actual behaviour, not always on what people say they will do. Our predictions of how we’ll feel and behave in the future are often wrong.

Why does the wrong choice make us feel so bad?

When you have lots of options you are responsible for what happens to you. Bad choices make people regretful only if they bear responsibility. Although adding options makes it easier to choose something we’ll really like, it also makes it easier for us to regret choices that don’t live up to our expectations. Greater choices equal greater opportunity for buyers remorse, and we are prone to regret aversion. We do our best to avoid it because it feels bad.

What if choices were made for us?

Well, there is evidence to show that default choices can be a very good thing. Look at the below image showing the opt-in rates for organ donations in different countries.

Why do some people give a lot and some give a lot less? Sweden and Denmark are very culturally similar so why are they so different?

Here is the donor opt-in form which the countries on the left received.

Check the box if you want to participate

The countries on the right were given this slight variation:

Check the box if you don't want to participate

It turns out the change in opt-ins is simply due to the addition of one simple word which changes the default option of the form.

In both conditions people simply didn’t check the box. Why? Because it’s a complex decision. So we stick with what was chosen for us.

“Much of our decisions are not decided by us, they reside with the person who designed the form. We don’t know our preferences that well, and because of this, we’re susceptible to influences from external forces.”

Dan Ariely

The influence that you have as a designer cannot be underestimated. Your design skills have the power to literally change people’s lives.

Get out there and make a difference!

Watch Lisa Ortega speaking about UX Psychology at the Behaviour and Design Conference 2019

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The Psychology of choice: Why less is more

We’ve all been there… sat in a meeting with stakeholders as one person after another insists that their content needs adding to the user interface (often the Home page right? people will argue for days about that one). Or perhaps they’re all fighting for their preferred feature to go into a product, and before you know it, the biggest case of feature creep you’ve ever seen is being drawn on the whiteboard. Your vision of the clean, simple design and intuitive Apple-like user experience that you came into the meeting with has disappeared before your very eyes. Goodbye dream!

But wait! Did you know there is tested science that proves you are right to keep things clean and simple? By keeping options and choice limited, you are actually making it easier and more likely that the user will take action. Here’s why…

The jam experiment

Imagine you’re walking down the street and you come across two stalls selling jam. One stall is selling 24 different types of jam and the other is selling 6 types of jam.

Which stall would you be most likely to stop at and taste the jam?

When we present this experiment in our Psychology talks, we find most people say they would stop at the stall selling 24 types of jam. Some people think this is a trick question, but it isn’t. People LOVE choices. When we ask people in our research sessions about choices, they’ll always go for the larger amount. In the consumer’s head choice = control and they think the more choice, the better.

In the consumer’s head choice = control and they think the more choice, the better

Let’s go back to the jam stalls for a moment. You’ve stopped to taste the jams at both – the stall selling 24 types and the one selling 6 types, in fact, you’re not the only one – 60% of people stop at the stall selling the most jam.

How many jams did you taste at each stall?

You likely tasted the same amount of jams at each stall, despite one having many more types of jam.

Which stall are you most likely to buy from?

Most people think they would be most likely to buy a jar of jam from the stall selling 24, however, research has proved that you are much more likely to buy from the stall selling just 6 types of jam. These findings are from a research study that was conducted by Psychologists Iyengar et al. They found that when it came to buying the jam, 30% of people bought a jar at the stall that sold 6 types, but only 3% of people bought a jar at the stall selling 24 types.

Customers given too many choices are ten times less likely to buy!

Psychology and the Paradox of choice - Jam experiment results

Paradox of choice leads to choice paralysis

Why, when we’re given more options, are we less likely to choose? It’s because we suffer from ‘choice paralysis’. There are too many options for us to satisfactorily compare them and feel that we’re able to make an adequate choice.

More choice requires more time and effort (to go through and compare everything). This can lead to anxiety, stress, unhappiness, high expectations, regret and self-blame if a poor choice is made. It’s hard and it’s difficult to make a good decision when you’re overwhelmed with information and options. You can’t process it effectively.

Instead of the risk of making a poor choice, we choose not to make a choice at all. No action is taken when the cognitive effort to compare all the options is too great.

Too much choice = no choice at all

Psychology and the Paradox of choice - choice is paralysing

 

This goes against how most people think they will behave. This is another thing you should know – people are notoriously bad at predicting their own behaviour. That’s why you shouldn’t ask questions like “How likely would you be to purchase this product?” in your user testing sessions, or if you do, you should at least take the answer with a pinch of salt. There may be some qualitative insights to be gained by asking it if you follow up with a “why?” query, but that insight shouldn’t be treated as a valid response as to whether they would actually buy it or not.

High value and emotional purchases are the hardest to choose

Why is it so much more difficult to choose which car to buy or which holiday to go on than it is to choose which cereal to buy in the supermarket?

There are two major differences in the purchases.

1 Higher emotion

2 Higher cost

Anything that involves increased emotion and cost has increased risk when making a poor decision. After all, who wants to be responsible for ruining the annual family holiday by choosing a poor hotel? For most mums this is a major cause of anxiety and they will spend a phenomenal amount of time tracking down the perfect family holiday.

Barry Schwartz, a psychologist famous for his book ‘The paradox of choice’ states “When you have all these choices, you have an enormous problem gathering all the information to decide which is the right one. You start looking over your shoulder, thinking that if you’d made a different choice, you’d have done better. So there’s regret, which makes you less satisfied with what you have chosen, whether or not there’s good reason to have regrets. It’s easy to imagine there was a better option, even if there wasn’t really, because you can’t possibly examine all of them.”

Less choice = more satisfaction

An interesting finding from the jam study, is that of the people who bought a jar of jam, those who purchased from the smaller stall were much more satisifed.

So, when we’re given too much choice, we’re also much less happy with the final choice we make. It’s because we’re still wondering if we made the right decision. With just 6 jams, it was easy to taste them all and feel confident about our purchase decision, but it’s unlikely we tasted all 24 jams so we leave with our purchase still wondering if there was a better tasting jam that we would have been more happy with. We’re more likely to suffer buyers remorse.

Apple website

Less is more on the Apple website

Image: It couldn’t be clearer what Apple want the user to do when they come to their website!

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2015, researchers analysed 99 studies on choice. They found four criteria that motivate consumers to buy:

1 When people want to make a quick and easy choice

2 When the product is complex (so fewer choices help the consumer make a decision)

3 When it’s difficult to compare alternatives

4 When consumers don’t have clear preferences

Just think of Google

The Google search screen is the best example of how limiting choice results in a great user experience. There is only one thing you can do – it couldn’t be any easier! Whenever you’re struggling within your designs, think about this design, how logical it is, how streamlined the user journey begins, how purposeful the design is to make the user take action.

The simplicity of google search

The simplicity of google search

Psychology in UX: What you can do

1. Focus on the user experience and user journey as opposed to the number of clicks

The 3 click rule is ancient now. All it does it surfaces most content closer to the first step, resulting in a busy home page that is harder to choose from.

2. Declutter, declutter, declutter!

Conduct some major housekeeping and be ruthless with your content. Does it really need to sit on that page? Does it need to be so big? Can you cutdown on the text? Does your primary call-to-action stand out the most?

3. Use white space

Make sure that the content on your pages are able to breathe. Give them space and they’ll stand out more. It will be easier for the user to know to select them.

4. Reduce cognitive load by breaking larger tasks into smaller chunks

Remind users of key information and make it really easy to find, as opposed to making them rely on their memory to remember key information on previous pages.

5. Improve the ability to make good decisions

If your website sells lots of products, like Asos, where you have a lot of choice, you may be thinking how on earth can I deal with the issue of choice paralysis. You won’t be able to fully. But you can make it easier for the user by fully understanding the user journey from their perspective – conduct research and user testing to understand what information they’re looking for and at which moments. What do they need to help them to find the right product for their needs? How can you translate these requirements into an intuitive and logical design?

Conduct research and user testing to understand what information your customers are looking for and at which moments

UX professionals need to remind stakeholders that adding too much into the user interface, requiring too many steps in the user journey, giving the user too many options to choose from only serves to make the user experience more difficult, not easier for the end user.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and people are trying to feature creep, tell them about the paradox of choice and that there’s proven, scientific logic to keep choice limited.

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