Do you think you are in control of your decisions? If you’re like most people, the natural answer is, “Of course. While I may regret some, I definitely decided to make them at the time.” I hate to tell you this, but odds are that you are like the rest of humanity in that your decisions are more determined by your surroundings than by you.
We are bombarded with stimuli and thousands of decisions to make every day. Starting from when we wake up, we decided when to set our alarm, when to actually move out of bed, what to put on, what to eat… the list is nearly infinite. Even when we decide not do something, that’s also a decision. Clearly, it is more efficient for everyday actions to be put on automatic and become routines, but can some of these mental shortcuts carry over to influence bigger decisions? The answer is yes, and here are some of the most common ways how.
1. Power of defaults, also known as the status quo bias
The default bias is a powerful psychological function. Because people tend to exhibit inertia, especially with more complex decisions, the default mode usually prevails. Whether it be the advanced settings on your laptop or iphone, a retirement savings plan, or a trade-off between reliability and rates, people overwhelmingly stick with the default, status quo, options. Some argue that as choices get more complex and people know less about the options, they don’t feel competent enough to switch from the default. However, even with basic tasks such as scrolling to the bottom of an e-mail to click “unsubscribe” to another spam e-mail, people are hesitant to take action, and thus continue to be bombarded by unwanted e-mail blasts. Think: Are you sticking with the default because its the best decision or just because it’s the easiest?
2. Forced functions
Forcing function means things are designed in a way such that people have to take certain actions in order to get what they want. Examples include having to take your card out of an ATM machine before receiving your money, having different sized medical delivery ports for different drugs, or having the car ding until you put your seat belt on. These are usually used to positively influence behavior by ensuring you do something to get the right result. Think: How can you take advantage of this? Maybe putting your phone on the other side of the room so you have to get up to turn the alarm off.
3. N effect
In the journal paper, “The N-Effect: More Competitors, Less Competition,” authors Garcia and Tor found that when the number of competitors increases, people actually perform worse. For example, if you’re entering a race with thousands of other people, you may think there’s no chance of winning and not try as hard as if it were a race with only 50 people. Think: Next time your competing against a large group, remember most people aren’t giving their all, so if you do, you could have an extra advantage.
Changing peoples’ anchor, or first piece of information, has huge effects on how they view everything else. Dan Ariely, in his book “Predictably Irrational” gives an example with the introduction of the Williams- Sonoma bread machines. When they first introduced them, people were hesitant to pay a premium for these machines; however, when they later introduced a model that was 50% more expensive, the first bread machines seemed like a bargain and sales shot up. Think: Are you actually getting a good deal or did something prior prime you to think that way?
5. Hawthorne effect
The Hawthorne effect suggests that peoples’ productivity changes with environmental changes. While there is a bit of controversy surrounding the suggestion, the original study by Landsberger revealed that changing (whether increasing or decreasing) the lighting in a factory increased workers productivity. This could be because they felt watched when changes occurred, but despite the reason, peoples’ productivity tends to increase with environmental change and novelty. Think: How can you change your work environment in small ways to become more productive?
6. State/ Context dependent memory
Ever had a difficult time with recall? Turns out the state and context in which you learned that information is the most ideal one for recalling it. If you were drunk when you learned somebody’s name, you may have an easier time remembering it when you’re drunk again. Interestingly, but maybe not as applicable, if you learn information underwater, you’re more likely to recall it underwater, and if you learn it on land, you are more likely to recall it on land. Think: What type of environment will I need to recall this information?
Raymond S. Hartman, Michael J. Doane and Chi-Keung Woo. “Consumer Relation and Status Quo”
The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), pp. 141-162
Garcia, Stephen M. “The N-Effect: More Competitors, Less Competition.” Psychological Science 20.7 (2009): 871-77. JSTOR. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
“Nudge” by Richard Thaler
“Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely