The Psychology of Choice: What Addiction and Consumer Decision Have in Common

Matthew Halpern
Nov 9, 2017 · 7 min read

Woah dude, that’s kind of a dark comparison don’t you think?

Well, maybe…The fact is, a person goes through the same cognitive process when you ask them to buy your product that an addict goes through when deciding to kick a habit. There are five discrete steps, and understanding what’s going on at a psychological level has implications for all consumers, as well as for anyone who designs products.

The Psychology of Choice

The reasons we choose things, and the cognitive processes at work as we choose, are as complex as the meaning of life itself. The psychologist, Barry Schwartz, wrote The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less in 2004 and highlighted many of the seemingly counterintuitive elements of human, decision-making, thought process.

One fundamental paradox he brought to light is that the more options we have, the less likely we are to make a choice at all. According to Dr. Liraz Margalit, this all stems from the fear of choosing wrong:

This can be translated into simple math — when there are only two options, we have a 50% chance of choosing the right one. But when there are five options, our chances suddenly decrease to 20% — Liraz Margalit, Ph.D.

Using this knowledge, we can better understand how to display content to prospective buyers and structure our product lines, as well as where to sell the things we make. As product designers and marketers, we can also put the odds in our favor. Something as simple as positive reinforcement can facilitate the experience of choosing immensely!

In The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Schwartz states:

“Something as trivial as a little gift of candy to medical residents improves the speed and accuracy of their diagnoses. In general, positive emotion enables us to broaden our understanding of what confronts us.” — Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Okay cool…so we should offer a promotional reward or something right?

No. Not the point.

Making a memorable and positive experience from the beginning is the best way to expedite the decision making process.

Understanding this is powerful!

If, as designers of experience, we can make someone love the process even before they trust the product, we remove the cognitive work of decision making (Warning: for the forces of good only).

Habit and addiction…do they serve a purpose?

No one wants to believe they are addicted to things…but they are. We are all habitually conditioned in every aspect of our lives. That’s why in any addiction recovery program the first step is admitting you have a problem.

These habits aren’t all inherently problematic. They often exist to provide respite from the mental rigor of decision making thousands of times a day. After all, each tiny decision we make is multi-faceted. Our minds log “presets” (or habits) that we can depend on when a situation occurs multiple times.

Now what does this have to do with consumer choice?

Every time you ask a consumer to buy your product for the first time, you are asking them to break a habit. The habit of problem-solving a different way. The habit of eating a different type of food. Even the habit (or non-habit) of not doing the thing you want them to (i.e. gym memberships).

The 5 Steps of Breaking a Habit

Breaking a habit or addiction can be really difficult. Even those who successfully overcome the challenge do so in a series of incremental cognitive steps:

1. Acknowledgment

In order for change to occur, one must become aware that there is a problem, or at least a better way of doing things. Sometimes it’s easy (i.e. drinking soda as a default beverage or smoking a pack a day). Other times it’s not as obvious, like when you’re not doing something the most efficient way. After all, you’ve always done things this way!

In fact, most of the time we have to be told if something could be improved. The entire field of advertising exists to show people how much better their lives could be if they chose the new and improved product; but wait, there’s more!

Companies spend immense sums of cash asking people to break their routines. Consumers today are so inundated with these advertising and marketing ploys that it’s often easier to ignore them than to welcome their messages. Still, buying a product always starts with admitting there is a problem, but the 10 competing solutions are irrelevant until that first step is taken.

2. Consideration

Okay, so there’s a problem; and it’s time to look at the options.

It’s like when your friend points out a new fad (anyone remember the Razor scooter?), and then things you never noticed before seem to pop up everywhere! This new recognition leads to a nagging sensation where your subconscious constantly reminds you of something you didn’t even know you cared about. There’s always a trigger; sometimes it’s the thing itself, which is how product placement or high-recognition brand advertising works. Other times more subtle associations take hold.

If you’re kicking a habit, your trigger might cause the recognition of a craving. You become incredibly self-aware and build a negative association to accompany the impulse. On the other side, from a consumer perspective, you begin to want things for the first time.

3. Exploration

Once recognition is no longer an obstacle, people generally do what they can to become educated. They talk to friends who have made similar choices, read through online resources, or even test things out at a store. If you’re like me, you may lose weeks of your life researching things before buying them (my particular guilty research pleasure is backpacks).

If you’re the one peddling your wares, this is where you need to convince people that your product/solution is the best. Each interaction your brand has is especially important at this stage, but the lead time is also the longest.

Some products will innately have longer lead times than others. Insurance products, or anything selling preventative value, will be especially affected by long-term returns. So, if you ever find yourself working for a client (internal or external) that wants to see the direct effects of your new marketing campaign, make sure they understand this stage.

4. Action

Doing the deed. Taking the jump. Kicking the crutch.

Photo by Denny Luan on Unsplash

This is the most meaningful step for consumers, addicts, and companies alike. Most of the time people know they will take this step one day, but it’s pretty uncomfortable (this is why we need UX designers). Giving away money sucks, going through withdrawals sucks worse, and having people not buy your product will put you out of business.

This is the stage where designing good user experience overcomes the uncomfortable nature of committing and hopefully reinforces your brand’s value as well. When you come out on the other side of a major decision and think ‘that was worth it!’ you gain the confidence to do it all over again if you have to. As a product designer, that’s my ultimate goal: inspiring confidence to choose my product over another, because mine was worth it.

5. Maintenance

The journey isn’t over; you must avoid the dreaded return for refund.

This is clinically called relapse and is arguably the hardest step for addicts. Maintaining a new habit is, in effect, the same as not reverting back to the old one. Tons of users relapse and return products. As a consumer, this is a valuable part of the relationship that you have with the companies you buy from. Trust is built by the opportunity to change your mind. If there is no opportunity to return an item, there is often an even larger barrier to confident buying behavior.

Buyer’s remorse can be a major source of concern in the maintenance step and it is caused by the exploration phase never ending! Similar to Freud’s theory that humans can get ‘stuck’ in a particular developmental stage, some consumers get stuck in exploration and they are never convinced that they really made the right choice.

Sidenote: The qualitative reason for relapse is as important to track as the action itself. Make sure it is prominent in your data records.

What this means for those who build products.

As we apply methodologies like Agile, Lean, and Design Thinking, it’s important to remember that all of our efforts are in service of one goal: breaking a habit. By understanding our customers, making our brand a positive experience, and reinforcing confident choice, we build the valuable relationships we need to survive in business.

It’s also important to keep in mind that these are not earth-shattering decisions. Often it’s merely choosing where to eat lunch that day.

Even small choices follow this formula, so whether you’re selling a car or a $5 sandwich, knowing how to make life easier for your customers does matter.

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