You walk into a shop knowing exactly what you want to buy. You plan to be in and out of there in 10 minutes. Just the essentials. As you enter the first thing you encounter is a pleasing aroma. A new range of frozen foods has launched, and there’s a free demo and tasting. They’re grilling the parathas right there and letting you try them hot. You give in and take a piece. It’s delicious! You pick up two packs. You wander down the aisle of the store, your short shopping list forgotten. You buy a few things that will go well with the parathas. Then you see your favourite deo and decide that you better stock up. By the time you’re checking out, an hour has passed and you have three times the number of items you intended to buy. WTH?!
It’s all a lie!
Okay not all of it, we exaggerate for dramatic effect. But the truth is, we are not as in control of our actions as we think we are. On a daily basis we are bombarded by external stimuli which play a big role in the decisions we make. When used a certain way, these stimuli can even influence us to act in ways we logically know that we shouldn’t. Take our shopping scenario for example, your mind is made up not to buy anything you don’t need and not to overspend, but things don’t go as planned. You got distracted by the delightful aroma of the parathas. Guess what, that was not an accident.
Studies have shown that pleasant smells can diminish our resolve. The olfactory nerve connects to the olfactory bulb which is part of the limbic system. This is an ancient part of the brain that developed before the rational part, it also pulls rank due to seniority. The limbic system controls emotions and impulses. You smell good food, you salivate, you buy the food. Turns out the fastest way to the wallet is through the nose. And that is why the fresh food is up in front. Once you let down your guard, chances are that you’ll be buying more than you planned.
Not feeling so in control of your decisions anymore? Stick with us, it gets better (or worse depending on how you look at it). There are a variety of influences that not only sway the way we shop but also how much we’re willing to spend on a certain item, and even whom we date.
The decoy effect
When it comes to making decisions, our brains find it easier when there is an anchor. What this means is that we like to have something to compare our choice to before we go ahead. But here’s the catch, we want easy comparisons. Something that is similar but slightly better or worse. To borrow an example from Behavioural Economist, Dan Ariely - if you were to choose between a holiday in Paris and a holiday in Rome and both offered free coffee with breakfast, you would have a really hard time deciding. But if there was a third option – Rome without free coffee, suddenly Rome with free coffee looks better. More often than not when the experiment was conducted, people chose Rome with free coffee over both the other options.
Rome without the free coffee was never going to have any takers, but it served a very important role. It was a decoy/anchor that made the other Rome option more attractive. This happens very often in marketing. A more expensive TV is placed next to one that has almost the same features but is considerably cheaper, to make the cheaper one sell. This practice has helped increase sales of a number of items that on their own didn’t hold much appeal. As soon as they got placed next to a less attractive version, they looked so much better.
As it turns out, we apply this same technique when choosing whom to date or marry. Deciding on a partner becomes much easier when we have an anchor to compare someone to. Between two people who are quite similar, we tend to pick the one who is slightly more physically attractive or conversationally engaging. Attraction is, after all, relative.
Why our brains do this, is linked with survival. During our evolution, quick decisions proved lifesaving. They also consumed less energy. Over time our brains began to look for the easy answers for everything. We find it tedious to carefully analyse every situation and weigh all the pros and cons. We let external stimuli influence us and help the process along. But the next time you have to make a big decision, you can try and look at all the factors more objectively and observe if your decision is truly your own or not.