When we use a mental shortcut to decide which product we want, we don't always end up with our ideal choice, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
When our minds are filled with other tasks, product choices become less likely to reflect our authentic goals, write authors Aimee Drolet (UCLA), Mary Frances Luce (Duke University), and Itamar Simonson (Stanford University). Their research identified two factors that can lead consumers to use shortcuts (heuristics) when they make product choices. One is people's level of desire to think analytically about choices (NFC, or need for cognition) and the other is the cognitive load (whether the person is attending to other mental tasks at the same time).
In the course of the study, the researchers asked participants to choose among different options of portable grills, stereo speakers, and tires. Participants who had previously scored high in Need for Cognition tended to focus more on their own goals and preferences, while those low in NFC were more likely to make compromise choices. But the effect reversed when high NFC people were asked to memorize 20 words for later recall.
"We investigated heuristic use within the context of choices that offer a so-called 'compromise option' that can be identified based on a 'choose-the-middle' heuristic that does not necessarily require that consumers consider options in view of their self-goals," write the authors.
"The present research provides new insights into the conditions under which consumers' choices will be reflective of their self-goals and hence the degree to which choices might be expected to reveal preferences," write the authors.
By remaining aware of their goals and their tendencies to juggle multiple tasks, consumers might end up making choices that more closely reflect their true preferences.
Aimee Drolet, Mary Frances Luce, and Itamar Simonson. "When Does Choice Reveal Preference? Moderators of Heuristic vs. Goal Based Choice." Journal of Consumer Research: June 2009.