The psychology of choice

Estimated reading time
4 minutes
10th December 2020
Author: Natasha Keary
Posted in: Psychology

This year, we’ve all had to make some difficult decisions. Questions like ‘how can my team weather the crisis?’, ‘how can I create the best content for the current climate?’, and even ‘is it safe to see my friends?’ have been at the front of everyone’s minds.

The problem with difficult questions is that they usually involve difficult choices – whether that’s choosing how to cut costs, or choosing which way to steer your marketing strategy during a pandemic. But enough about 2020, it’s time to look forwards.

The psychology behind decision making is fascinating and offers all of us a chance to gain some perspective on our tough choices. Let’s take a look at some of the psychological principles which influence our decisions, and how we can make better and easier choices in 2021. 

Forest clearing

What happens when we have to choose?

Picture this: you’re taking a walk in the woods when the path you’ve been following splits into two. The path to the right takes you into a dark, spooky-looking cluster of trees. The path to the left veers off into a muddy swamp. Which do you choose?

Rational Choice Theory, based on the ideas of economist Adam Smith in 1776, is one of the leading theories behind decision making. The theory says that we make rational decisions by choosing the option which aligns best with our own personal motives and objectives. In this case, if you’re thinking of heading straight to a restaurant after your walk and don’t want to turn up covered in mud, you’re likely to choose the path through the trees. 

However, many economists and psychologists dispute Rational Choice Theory based on one thing in particular: the impact of emotions. It turns out that our emotions have a significant impact on the decisions we make and can override a rational decision. That’s why, in the example above, you might continue through the muddy swamp even if you rationalize that going through the spooky cluster of trees is the better choice. Because, well, the trees look scary. 

Use Your Brain neon sign

What goes on in our brains?

Studies suggest that the decision-making process takes place in the front part of our brains, in what’s called the prefrontal cortex. In evolutionary terms, this is the newest part of our brain and is responsible for important processes like making long-term plans and calculating risk. 

When examining this part of the brain during decision-making processes, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh found that stressors like anxiety seriously affect cognition. Anxiety disrupts brain neurons which makes it harder to make rational decisions. The researchers found that this was the case both in animals and humans. 

If contending with emotions wasn’t enough, there are also several psychological biases that impact the decision-making process.  A few of these include:

Loss aversion
This means that ‘losses loom larger than gains’, and we tend to be more fearful than hopeful. Loss aversion causes us to choose an option that is less risky over one which is a more rational choice. 

Status quo bias
We prefer sticking with what’s comfortable and familiar instead of making changes. Status quo bias causes us to stay with the phone provider we’ve been with for the past five years instead of switching to another which is offering a better deal. 

Social proof
This is one we’re all familiar with. If we see all of our friends or a large group of people making one choice, we’re inclined to follow suit. Blame our bias towards fitting in and being part of the group. 

Framing
The way choices are presented to us can easily throw us off. If someone offers us the choice of a 20% fat ice cream or an 80% fat-free ice cream, we’re inclined to choose the latter if we’re looking for a healthier alternative. 

Want to brush up on your cognitive biases for marketers? Check this out.

Signpost on side of road

How do we make better choices?

The odds certainly look stacked against us. If it’s not our own emotions leading us astray, it’s our unconscious biases taking the reins. While we’re dwelling on the bad news, it turns out that the stress and anxiety from one bad decision can cause us to make another bad decision, and another, and another, and so forth…

Luckily, it’s not all bad news! Making better decisions might be as easy as just thinking about choices differently. This is the premise behind integrative thinking, a concept first proposed by Graham Douglas in 1986. In the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin interviewed successful business leaders and found that “they have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.”

That’s integrative thinking in action. By creating a solution that is a hybrid of two choices presented to us, we can make better decisions which more rationally fit our personal goals. 

All in all

Let’s go back to our scenario in the woods. Using integrative thinking in this context might mean that you choose neither path. Instead, you might forge your own route between the swamp and the spooky cluster of trees. This route might be muddy, but it won’t be as muddy as the swamp. It might be dark, but it won’t be as dark as the cluster of trees. 

While making decisions is difficult, looking at different ways of creating solutions and mitigating biases is the way forward in 2021. Here’s to better decisions from here onwards.

Read more about the psychology of choice in our guide to persuasive patterns.

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