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Don't Think Too Hard About That Next Big Purchase

Most of us put a lot of thought into making a major purchase, carefully considering the pros and cons of our various options before making a decision. New research suggests we're doing it all wrong.
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Quick, intuitive judgments are more likely to stand up over time, according to a new paper, “The Devil is in the Deliberation.” In it, Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis of Amsterdam’s Radboud University explain why a new car can look so appealing in the showroom, but seem so disappointing in the driveway.

“Our judgmental apparatus is far from flawless,” they conclude. “And ironically, it gets worse when we deliberate.”

The paper is a follow-up to a 2006 study suggesting that conscious thought “often undermines the quality of people’s judgments.” The researchers’ premise is that deep deliberation over a decision “resembles a spotlight,” in that it “focuses attention on a specific aspect of an object but is too narrow to take all aspects into account.

“This narrow focus,” they continue, “disturbs the natural weighting of attributes by putting disproportionate weight on attributes that are accessible, plausible and easy to verbalize, and therefore puts too little weight on other attributes.”

In other words, our conscious minds tend to focus on one or two variables, while our unconscious has a better grasp of the big picture.

Nordgren and Dijkstershuis tested this thesis in a series of experiments, including one in which subjects were asked to rate a number of Chinese ideograms for attractiveness. Some participants were instructed to make snap judgments, while others were urged to “think very hard about the object, trying to generate clear reasons why you find it attractive or unattractive.”

They then repeated the experiment 50 minutes later with the same instructions. The result: Those who made gut-level evaluations were much more consistent in their choices than those who carefully deliberated. A similar test in which participants rated the taste of different flavors of jellybeans had the same result.

But were the snap judgments good judgments? Consistency, after all, isn’t a guarantee of quality. To test this question, participants were asked to rate a series of paintings. Some were acknowledged masterpieces from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while others were poor-quality pieces from the collection of the Museum of Bad Art in Boston.

Both groups – those who used snap judgments and those who carefully and consciously evaluated each painting – rated the MOMA works of higher quality. “To the extent there is any difference at all, the nondeliberators appear to be more accurate in their evaluations,” the researchers write. “Taken together, these findings suggest that not only does a nondeliberative approach lead to more consistent preferences, but it does so without sacrificing the accuracy of the judgment.”

In an additional test, participants evaluated apartments based on either three or nine attributes. When only three variables (location, price and size) were involved, the deliberators were as consistent in their choices as were the snap-judgment people. But when they had to weigh nine attributes (including carpeting, or the presence of a nearby train stop), the deliberators were far less consistent than those who made quick choices. To Nordgren and Dijksterhuis, this confirms that the deliberators did a poor job at weighting the different variables, deciding the second time around that the terrace that meant so much to them really wasn’t important after all.

These findings contain a clear message for consumers, but the researchers note they could also be profitably studied by salespeople. They suggest that if a car has one particularly good feature (it’s very safe to drive) but a number of negatives (high gas mileage, poor handling, etc.), “a car salesman might encourage a potential buyer to deliberate over the pros and cons of the car, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of safety.” The conscious deliberation could impair the buyer’s judgment, leading him to overvalue safety and making him more likely to purchase the car.

Finally, a realistic plan to rescue America’s auto manufacturers.