The Science of Decision Making

January 21, 2011 | By | Comments (0)

I get a lot of news releases about new studies coming out in various scientific journals. Mostly it's stuff about women's health and fitness, but I've fallen in love with one journal in particular, The Journal of Consumer Research.

The research in the JCR has tons of real-world meaning—stuff that actually can affect your every day life/choices. For instance: look at the lipstick in your pocketbook. What's it called? Dusty rose? Brick red? Or, something like "Wanderlust" or "Luck, Be A Lady." According to a 2005 study in the JCR, people are actually more likely to buy products when the names are more creative or ambiguous. I guess that's why Cherries in the Snow, a deep-berry Revlon hue that's been around forever and still garners many fans, is so iconic!?

Anyways, if you've ever wondered about the intersection between our minds and our shopping carts, check it out. From the forthcoming August issue alone, I learned the following:

1. If your last name is Zoolander, you're probably already queue for the new Verizon iPhone next month. This study from researchers at Georgetown University and Belmont University finds that the "tendency to act quickly to acquire items" is related to the first letter of one's childhood last name. Meaning: the people at the end of the alphabet may be quick to buy. The so-called "last-name effect" means faster response to "purchase opportunities" and in the research, it showed up whether or not the items were real (i.e. tickets to a sporting event, cash, booze) or if they were merely hypothetical (i.e. a sale on a backpack). The reason, say the study authors, goes way back to grade school, when kids with names that fall at the tail end of the alphabet often end up at the tail end of the line, literally. Later on in life, these kids grow up to be swift consumers, turning into "early buyers" to compensate for those formative experiences. Hmm. So I guess revenue-hungry marketers and credit-card companies should start cold-calling for new customers after X, Y, and Z?

2. When it comes to seemingly cut-and-dried safety items (i.e. airbags, smoke detectors and vaccines) emotions get in the way of facts. Such are the findings of a study from researchers at University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University School of Law, which looked at something called the "betrayal effect." This is where people actually feel betrayed when they learn about the risks associated with safety products. In the example of airbags: people had to choose between two cars. One had an airbag less likely to save a life in an accident. The other had an airbag more likely to save a life, but also carried a TINY chance of causing death due to the force needed to deploy it. The result: Most participants avoided that second airbag with the miniscule risk of harm, even though that made them less safe overall

3. After a hard day, we seek the easy way. Well, this seems sort of obvious at first—after all, when you've been through the wringer at work it's not like you're going to start in on calculus after dinner—but it's a bit more interesting than that. According the researchers at University of Hong Kong and Northwestern University, people who are tired from some sort of demanding tast will actually pass up the more desirable choice for the one that's less desirable, but easier. Drawing from the results of their study, this means that if you just got finished some big project, they'd be more likely to go to a concert that was nearby than one that's a tad farther away but is by a favorite band. Basically, it amounts to the fact that when we're already drained of energy, we make choices that somehow aren't going to require yet more feats of strength. My real-world takeaway from this? This is a big part of the success of fast-food at the food court and trashy novels. You're tired—a long shopping excursion or a rough day at work–and so you want nothing more than easy eats and easy reading.