100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 — You Make Most of Your Decisions Unconsciously



You are thinking of buying a TV. You do some research on what TV to buy and then you go online to purchase one. What factors are involved in this decision making process?

It’s not what you think — I cover this topic in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? You like to think that when you make a decision you have carefully and logically weighed all the relevant factors. In the case of the TV, you have considered the size of TV that works best in your room, the brand that you have read is the most reliable, the competitive price, whether you should get blu-ray, etc etc. But the research on decision-making, especially the recent research, shows that although you want to think that your decision-making is a conscious, deliberate process, it’s not. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing.

Unconscious decision-making includes factors such as:

What are most other people buying (social validation): “I see that a particular TV got high ratings and reviews at the website”

What will make me stay consistent in my persona (commitment): “I’m the kind of person that always has the latest thing, the newest technology.”

Do I have any obligations or social debts that I can pay off with this purchase (reciprocity): “My brother has had me over to his house all year to watch the games, I think it’s time we had them over to our place to watch”

and on and on.

Don’t Confuse Unconscious with Irrational or Bad. I take exception with Dan Ariely and his book, Predictably Irrational. Most of our mental processing is unconscious, and most of our decision-making is unconscious, but that doesn’t mean it’s faulty, irrational or bad. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of data (11,000,000 pieces of data come into the brain every second!) and our conscious minds can’t process all of that. Our unconscious has evolved to process most of the data and to make decisions for us according to guidelines and rules of thumb that are in our best interest most of the time. This is the genesis of “trusting your gut”, and most of the time it works!

So What To Do? — The next step is to think about what this means for people who design things like websites, where you are providing information and/or engaging customers to make a decision. This is, of course, the topic of my book, but let’s hear from you. If we know that people are making decisions unconsciously, rather than consciously, what are some strategies we should employ at the website to encourage them to engage?

And for those of you who like to read, great books on this topic are:

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer — The BEST book on the topic of decision-making in general.

Strangers to Ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson — A little bit more academic, but still a great book.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

and of course

Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?


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9 responses to “100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 — You Make Most of Your Decisions Unconsciously”

  1. Dan Collins Avatar
    Dan Collins

    Interesting post – Was the use of 'make' instead of made in the first line for cognitive dissonance or merely a typo? I disagree a little with your 'go with the gut intuition because it is usually right' premise though. If that were the case we humans would have less difficulties because our decisions, which are almost always gut decisions. The decisions would not cause us so much "stuff" to undo or do better.
    Trust your gut may be good for some but I believe not for all, we have a history as a species of invention and progress yes, but also some pretty nasty egocentric gut decisions. Thanks for a good read though – Dan Collins

  2. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
    Susan Weinschenk

    Hi Dan,

    It was a typo!! Thanks for alerting me. Yes, trusting your gut can sometimes get you into hot water, but there have been some great analyses that show that most (not always) of the time those rules of thumb work. Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide describes that research well. And whether it's true or not, I think it's the way we are. I'm not at all sure we can change the way we make decisions. I'm still working on that idea.

  3. loans canada Avatar

    http://www.whatmakesthemclick.net is very informative. The article is very professionally written. I enjoy reading http://www.whatmakesthemclick.net every day.

  4. […] But only 40 of them are processed. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing (Weinschenk, 2009), so emotional design came into […]

  5. Mila Avatar

    Very interesting read :)
    It reminded me of the Deliberation-Without-Attention effect, which describes that gut decisions (deliberations w/o attention) work best with complex choices (= choices that include many attributes to consider, while conscious thought is beneficial for simple choices due to its precision and b/c it’s more rule based.
    I guess the saying to sleep over a tough decision has some truth value to it..

  6. Edward C Avatar

    Strategies for web design.

    First question we need to ask is… “What does the web do better than any other marketing medium?”

    I remember back before the turn of the century when a number of web pundits had their favorite analogy for which medium the web was most alike. Newspapers, TV, and telephone were all suggested for various reasons. What people didn’t understand back then, and what most still misunderstand, when it comes to marketing, is that the web is not like any of those older mediums.

    The web swallowed them whole and can use play any all prior mediums, and this is a fine example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    What makes the web different, though, is that the medium is a one to one relationship which is controlled by the user. This means that your business web site is not broadcasting to the masses because the masses are not looking for your stuff. Just your market is… maybe.

    The web does something better than any other media and that is that it shares. Networks are designed to share and that was, and still is, the main purpose of the world wide web.

    What is your page sharing?

    I watched your webinal this morning, Susan. The one that Jay Berkowitz and the Internet Marketing Club hosted. In that webinar you mentioned how people feel like repaying when they receive something of value, and that this could relate to a signup or to share with others through social media.

    Even so, very few commercial web sites are sharing anything of value and they wonder where the sales are. But even with good content it is still necessary to offer something more of value. This is something I have not done for my own site being busy writing for others.

    To summarize then, the web is about sharing. Social media grows because it shares, web sites go viral because they share and we live or die by information in the information age. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.

  7. internetsuc6 Avatar

    In this world of status, money and succes is it normal that you make decisions that are influenced by the people around you. You want to be a part of a group….

  8. verleid een vrouw Avatar

    It is true that you make most decisions without thinking them over. I think it is good even when you make a wrong dicision now en then….

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