This post is the first in a series about behavioral economics and the nexus between communications and human behavior.
Image source: Flickr user Quinnanya
For President Obama, it’s a blue suit or a grey suit. That is his work wardrobe. As he stated in a Vanity Fair article “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.” President Obama illustrates a basic theory on decision-making: constantly making decisions, even seemingly inconsequential ones, impacts one’s ability to make subsequent decisions.
Research has shown that with each decision a person makes, he or she expends mental energy, lessening self-control and leading to decision-making fatigue. When faced with many choices, a person will often choose the easiest option available rather than spend additional energy to determine the optimal choice. “Choice overload” can occur, potentially leading to no choice at all. This is probably no surprise to anyone who has ever had to pick a new paint color for their wall; but, the implications can be far-reaching as more significant choices are made.
In one example, the effects of decision-fatigue were demonstrated through an experiment with Israeli parole judges. The researchers observed the judges’ decisions whether to grant parole. There were three sessions divided by two food breaks throughout the day. They found that the judges’ rulings were more favorable at the beginning of each session and dropped sharply prior to the next break regardless of the merit of the prisoner’s case in front of them. As the judges made more decisions, they showed an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo, i.e. leaving the prisoner’s in jail. The decision-making fatigue was only overcome by the short food breaks.
Decision-making fatigue may be particularly relevant for those living in poverty. In another study, Dean Spears, a Princeton economist, found that people living in poverty had greater depletion of willpower when making a purchase decision for discounted soap than more affluent people did. The research indicates that decision-fatigue was greater for people with few financial resources because they had to expend additional mental energy debating the trade-off of buying soap in lieu of other basic necessities. Spears and others suggest that decision fatigue has further implications for those living in poverty: that they have depleted stores of willpower to devote to work and school after constantly deciding on financial trade-offs.
So, how can we facilitate better decision-making through our communications?
The first step is for marketers to be aware of decision-fatigue. At the Ad Council, we are often asking people who are already busy playing multiple roles throughout the day – studying, working, parenting, caregiving – to make even more decisions on a daily basis. We want Americans to make energy-efficient choices, optimize their financial decisions and choose healthy food options. We need to simplify options for people as much as possible in order to avoid choice overload and encourage meaningful decisions. A few general rules to keep in mind:
Keep it simple
When addressing a complex social issue, provide a clear first step for your audience to take action. Do not make them choose where to begin or what to prioritize.
Only include meaningful information
Don’t assume more information will lead to a more informed choice. Decide the most critical information for your audience and clearly outline it for them.
Encourage people to take breaks and “reload”
Set up processes with steps and built-in breaks.
It all comes down to recognizing that people aren’t always capable of making the rational choice that we, as social marketers, believe is in their best interest. Taking some time to consider how to communicate in a way that makes it easier to recognize and take desired actions can help us move busy Americans towards better decisions.