- New studies show that people facing uncertainty rely more on their feelings and emotions to make decisions
- Uncertainty about one thing can affect decisions being made about something completely different
- Both positive and negative uncertainty increase reliance on emotional decision making
NEW YORK – While many people are prone to conduct research or evaluate all potential outcomes when making a decision, new research from Columbia Business School finds that states of uncertainty increase people’s reliance on their gut feelings to make judgements and decisions.
“Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life,” says Michel Pham, the Kravis Professor of Business in Marketing at Columbia Business School. “Whether it’s deciding what to order for dinner, worrying about your commute, or determining how much to put away for retirement, our findings show that any state of uncertainty increases our reliance on what we feel is the right thing to do.” This finding contradicts the popular notion that when they are uncertain, people try to be more logical and rational in their judgments and decisions.
In addition to uncertainty increasing reliance on emotional decision making, the researchers discovered that being in a general state of uncertainty can affect any type of decision, even if the uncertainty in question has nothing to do with the decision at hand. The authors cite previous research showing that uncertainty is a psychological condition that causes discomfort, and that people are hardwired to try to resolve this discomfort by resolving the uncertainty.
Pham elaborates: “For however long it persists, this discomfort can influence all types of decision making, even if the source of the discomfort has no connection to the decision immediately in front of you. In other words: being uncertain about anything can have an impact on everything.”
The authors are quick to caution that their findings do not indicate that decision making based on emotions or advanced information gathering is better than one or another. Instead, their hope is that people understand the connection that uncertainty has on decision making, and recognize that our natural instinct is to lean on emotions and feelings in the absence certainty.
The research, Uncertainty Increases the Reliance on Affect in Decisions, published in the Journal of Consumer Research was conducted by Pham and Ali Faraji-Rad, an assistant professor of marketing and international business at Nanyang Business School in Singapore.
BEHIND THE RESEARCH FINDINGS
In a series of six studies, researchers created varied states of uncertainty for more than 2000 participants, and then asked them to make a variety of judgments and decisions.
In two studies, participants who were in states of uncertainty were found to be more influenced by the pleasantness of a commercial’s musical soundtrack and the attractiveness of a picture than participants who were not in a state of uncertainty when making judgments.
The same phenomenon held true in another study where participants who were uncertain were more influenced in their evaluations of a fictional juice by previous feelings of disgust that the researchers had induced independently. This later finding led researchers to the conclusion that uncertainty amplifies both positive and negative feelings in judgements and decisions.
HIGH- VERSUS LOW-STAKES DECISIONS
Since many of the studies focused on relatively “low stakes” decisions, the researchers suggest that additional work should be conducted specifically looking at high- versus low-stakes decisions. They portend that:
“Would states of uncertainty prompt consumers to rely on their feelings when deciding on a million-dollar house? This is hard to tell without further empirical evidence. On the one hand, one could argue that when the stakes are very high, uncertainty may lead consumers to adopt a more ‘rational’ mindset, thereby reducing their reliance on [feelings]. On the other hand, one could alternatively argue that high stakes combined with high uncertainty may encourage people to rely more on what ‘feels right’ to them.”
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About Columbia Business School
Columbia Business School is the only world-class, Ivy League business school that delivers a learning experience where academic excellence meets with real-time exposure to the pulse of global business. Led by Dean Glenn Hubbard, the School’s transformative curriculum bridges academic theory with unparalleled exposure to real–world business practice, equipping students with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to recognize, capture, and create opportunity in any business environment. The thought leadership of the School’s faculty and staff, combined with the accomplishments of its distinguished alumni and position in the center of global business, means that the School’s efforts have an immediate, measurable impact on the forces shaping business every day. To learn more about Columbia Business School’s position at the very center of business, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Michel Tuan Pham
Professor Pham’s business expertise covers the areas of marketing strategy and management, branding, customer and consumer psychology, trademark psychology, marketing communication, and...Read more.