Faced with the same set of choices on different occasions, most consumers choose the same thing again and again. Marketers rely on consumers’ preference consistency to conduct some of their most important activities, such as customer relationship management and new product development. And research has shown that people like to believe that they make consistent decisions.
If it is clear that consumers are consistent in their preferences, it is less clear what drives consistency and the decision-making process. The idea that decision making is driven primarily by conscious, cognitive mental processing — the rational man theory — has fast been ceding ground to the idea that people might make choices in ways that are less obviously rational. There’s even a growing body of social science research showing that, in many instances, thinking too much can deteriorate the quality of decisions.
Professor Leonard Lee worked with On Amir of the University of California, San Diego and Dan Ariely of Duke University to investigate what drives the consistency of consumer preference. In particular, the researchers theorized that consistency might be the result of an emotionally driven decision-making process.
Lee and his coresearchers adopted a concept from economics — transitivity — to measure preference consistency. A person who chooses a hot dog over a chili dog and a chili dog over a turkey burger should, according to the preference consistency paradigm, choose a hot dog over a turkey burger. “But if I chose a turkey burger over a hot dog, that means my choices are not that consistent. I have violated transitivity,” Lee explains.
To measure transitivity violations, Lee and his coresearchers showed subjects 10 different products in different pairings, repeating the choice sets several times. To evoke varying degrees of emotional processing and cognitive processing in subjects, the researchers presented the choices in different formats. For example, images elicit more emotional responses than words, so in one round subjects were shown choice sets in words while in another round they saw choice sets in images. Color photographs prompt a more emotional response than black and white photographs, so in some rounds choice sets were presented as color photos, while in other rounds choice sets were presented in black and white.
The researchers tracked how many times subjects violated transitivity in each choice set. When subjects chose from products presented in formats designed to provoke a more deliberative decision-making processes, they accumulated more transitivity violations: their choices were less consistent than when they chose from products presented in more emotionally evocative formats.
“You might think that carefully weighing pros and cons about a decision would lead to greater preference consistency. But we actually found the opposite,” Lee says. “Decisions we make based on our emotions and our gut are actually more consistent.”
For marketers, this means it might make more sense to use affective cues to elicit emotional processing in consumers, instead of merely listing all the features of a product, which could induce greater cognitive processing.
For consumers, the research implies that satisfaction might be linked to preference consistency — those things people choose consistently time and again are probably the things they will be most happy with. If that’s the case, consumers might want to put greater trust in how they feel to help guide their purchasing decisions and invest less time weighing pros and cons.
That emotions actually play a significant role in decision making, Lee cautions, should not be conflated with the idea that relying on emotions means that humans are somehow irrational. “Evolutionary psychology suggests that our emotional systems have evolved over millions of years to help us deal with important decisions in our lives effectively and efficiently,” he says. “That implies that our emotional system is functional and has a lot of value.”
Leonard Lee is assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.