The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

The Process of Choice and Our Fickle Brains

I just listened to the new episode of Radio Lab and the theme this week is choice.  How do we make choices in life?  How can marketers and politicians influence these choices?  How much free will do we really have?

One segment highlights Baba Shiv’s work on fruit and cake.  Which would you choose if offered a piece of chocolate cake or fruit salad?  Okay, now what if you were distracted?  What Shiv did take two groups of people.  One group was asked to memorize a seven digit number and the other group a two digit number (the subjects were told this was a memory experiment…one thing I remember from my college sociology courses is that you always lie to the subjects about the purpose of the study!)  After they memorized they numbers, they were offered a choice between cake and fruit salad.  The peope that memeorized the longer number were much more likely to choose cake.  We all know that fruit is better for us, but when you distract the brain by asking it to memorize a long number, then the impulsive side comes out and we do things we know aren’t quite so good for us.

Another segment focuses on Lawrence Williams research on the connections between physical sensations and emotional judgements.  He has subjects hold a cup of hot or cold coffee as they read a description of a person.  The people holding the hot coffee described the person they read about as having a “warmer” personality.  Could your opinions of Obama and McCain depend on whether you were drinking a cup of hot coffee or an ice cold soda when you watch their speeches?  Research says yes.

Another segment was on how casinos keep players gaming.  Casinos use those loyalty cards to keep track of how much people lose before they quit playing.  As you near that limit, that is when the casino sends someone over and offers you the free tickets or dinner or some other little incentive to make you happy, forget your losses, and keep playing (I am going to Vegas for the first time tomorrow due to the fact that hotels are criminally cheap right before Thanksgiving…however, I know the odds and don’t gamble and the only coins I am going to drop into a machine are going to be at the Pinball Hall of Fame Museum).

I am sure most people like to sit back and think they are too smart to fall for such tricks. However, it is important to remember that you are not even aware of the most effective ways people manipulate the choices you make.  The very layout of stores is designed to get you to spend more (to say nothing of the maze that is your average casino!)  I am very analyitical but Shiv’s research shows one way to get to me is to overwhelm me with information.

As prevelant as these techniques are in our world, they receive very little coverage outside of academic journals.  Media has little interest in covering them since they make their money from advertisers who frequently use these techniques!  With our current economic downturn, you can bet retailers are going to be emptying their arsenal in the next few weeks to part you from your dollars.

November 23, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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