Wednesday, February 16, 2011


We like to think that we're creatures of free will. We also like to think that having more choice is better.

Freedom. Selection. Decisions. We want to own all of these things; we want the power they provide us.

Or do we? Some intriguing research suggests not. Sheena Iyegur, a professor at Columbia Business School, recently conducted a round of experiments on the subject of consumer choice. Her team presented two types of nail polish to a group of women. The brand labels were removed from the bottles. The first reaction? Indignation - the women were convinced that both brands were exactly the same color, and that the researchers were asking a trick question.

Next, the labels were re-attached and presented to the same group ("adorable" and "ballet shoes" were the brands, in case you want to try this at home). Interestingly, the researchers weren't accused of trying to fool the ladies. Instead, the test subjects picked their favorite, with the results being half "adorable" and half "ballet shoes".

The most interesting part was the last. The bottles were taken away, and presented again for choice. The women all picked the same brands. However, the researchers had switched the labels, so what the subjects chose were not the bottles they had selected in the previous round.

So the conclusion to draw from this experiment (and others like it) is that for all our talk about freedom to choose, at the end of the day we don't really want a choice. We do like outside forces to guide us, thank you very much. That's why brands have so much power over our decision-making process; consumers often allow them to do the deciding. If a label seems more familiar, comforting or inviting and attractive, it likely has the edge over any rival. Even if we know by our eyes and brain that the choices being presented aren't much different (or quite the same, as in the nail polish experiment).

Among her other credentials, Professor Iyegur was uniquely qualified to conduct this research: she is 100% blind!

Here’s a short video from BigThink with the professor talking about how too many dating choices is making us shallower.

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