The more complex a decision is, the more thought and deliberation it requires, right? As intuitive and seemingly obvious as that statement seems, new research shows that it’s not true, at least in some kinds of situations. An article by S. Alexander Haslam in the current Scientific American Mind, I Think, Therefore I Err (subscription), describes work being done by Ap Dijksterhuis of the Department of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and others on how we make decisions. Surprisingly, simple decisions seem to work out best when made with more thought, while complex decisions seem better when made intuitively.
One study by Dijksterhuis let subjects assess the quality of four hypothetical automobiles using either four or twelve attributes. Those who were given four attributes chose the better quality cars more accurately when they were allowed to think about it, while subjects who were distracted (and who couldn’t deliberate) made worse choices. Surprisingly, though, the results were reversed for the subjects who had more information (12 attributes) – the distracted subjects actually made better choices than the subjects allowed to concentrate on the decision.
Of greater marketing interest, perhaps, is another study by the same group that measured the satisfaction of subjects with purchase decisions they made. The researchers surveyed shoppers leaving two stores, Bijenkorf, which sells clothes, a “simple” product, and IKEA, a seller of “complex” products like furniture. (We wonder if the researchers who found clothing to be a “simple” product were mostly male!) They found that the purchases of simple products were happiest with their decision when they had thought long and hard about the purchase, while the reverse was true for those who bought more complex products. The happiest buyers for the complex products were those who decided with little conscious deliberation. (More details can be found in a BBC article, Sleep on it, decision-makers told.)
The researchers recommend that decision makers leave more complex decisions to the subconscious. I’m not sure completely buy into this strategy. Sometimes, complex products actually require detailed analysis to make a good decision. I’ve been evaluating smart phones, for example – a complex product if there ever was one. Each phone has dozens of important variables – screen size, keyboard type and layout, overall weight, battery life under different conditions, phone size, data connection speed, service availability in different geographic areas, operating system, and many others. The models I’ve looked at or tested have been quite different in many respects, and a unit that excels in one area may be deficient in another. This is truly a complex problem, but careful analysis IS important – buying an expensive phone that proves to be incompatible with my scheduling software, has a difficult-to-use keyboard, or has limited broadband service in a geographic area I frequent, is a prescription for disaster. On the other hand, we’ve all had situations where we’ve devoted way too much thought to buying an item – one thing that I’ve noticed is that doing lots of research may promote buyer’s remorse; even when you make the “best” choice, you maintain awareness of the flaws of the thing you bought and of those areas where a competing item excels.
Let’s turn this around and look at it from neuromarketing point of view – if we accept the idea that some complex decisions are best made without lots of deliberation, how should that affect our marketing? I think it’s a matter of degree – if you are selling a complex product like an automobile, give the customer a simple reason to buy your product. Make the specifications and features available to the consumer, since people like me will want to analyze the details, but don’t lead with six new features or ten reasons to buy the product. A simple message, like “#1 in customer satisfaction” or “more safety features than any car in its class” will go farther to steering the consumer down the intuitive decision path. After all, if the car I’m buying is #1 in customer satisfaction, do I really need to sweat the details? Maybe not.
Simple marketing messages have always been appealing for their clarity and memorability. The flip side of the research, though, is that very simple products, like toothpaste or socks, may do better with more information. Indeed, scanning the toothpaste aisle today reveals products with an almost bewildering array of features. Toothpaste is no longer a simple dental cleaning product – now, products offer various combinations of “whitening,” “tartar control,” “cavity prevention,” and other features. Consumers can zero in on their dental hygiene priorities and find a product that’s a perfect match.
One caution for marketers is that even though the research shows that consumers should make decisions in this manner for best results (in terms of both decision quality and their own satisfaction), it doesn’t mean that people WILL decide this way. It appears that the researchers found no shortage of shoppers who bought simple products impulsively and complex products with a lot of thought. Whether or not these strategies were optimal, that’s how those consumers made their decisions. At best, a marketing campaign may guide the customer toward one strategy or the other, but it can’t really force a customer to decide in a way that he doesnt want to. So, allow for different types of decision makers, whether the product is simple or complicated.