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100 More Things #118: WHEN FACED WITH A COMPLEX DECISION, PEOPLE FOLLOW THEIR FEELINGS

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You’ve probably had the experience of having to make a complex decision and getting advice like, “Don’t let your feelings get in the way of making a good decision.” Many people think the best way to make a complex decision is to rule out feelings.

As a designer, this idea that feelings get in the way of good decision-making, and that people should base their decisions on solid, factual evidence, is likely to influence how, when, and how much information you build into your designs.

Let’s say you work for a car company and your team is designing part of the website where potential customers can decide which vehicle they’re interested in purchasing.

Or maybe you work for a company that sells software apps for email marketing, and you’re designing the web page where people decide if they need the free package, the pro package, or the enterprise package.

Or maybe you work for an online university and you’re designing an app that lets students sign up for courses for next semester.
All of these examples require people to make fairly complex decisions. Conventional wisdom holds that they’ll probably base them on deliberation, rather than feelings.

If you follow that logic, then you, as the designer, would give your audience plenty of information about each choice, and make sure they have lots of time so they can make the best, and most deliberate, decision.

But that might be the opposite of what you should do if you want to help them make the best decision.

Logic Or Feelings?

Joseph Mikels (2011) conducted a series of studies to find out whether people make better complex decisions if they a) use logic, have comprehensive information, and carefully deliberate, or b) base the decisions on their feelings, with less information and less deliberation.

In his first study, he presented participants with attributes (things like gas mileage, safety features, and so on) for four hypothetical car options. Their task was to decide which was the best car. Before showing the car attributes and car options, Mikels told some of the participants to pay attention to, and base their decision on, which car was best, by focusing on the attributes they were about to see. He told other participants to pay attention to and base their decision on their feelings.

He reinforced the feelings versus information split by asking the participants in both groups different questions in the middle of the task. After showing an attribute about a car, the people with the feelings instructions were asked to rate how they felt about the particular car (they rated their feelings on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being very negative and 7 being very positive). The people in the information group were not asked about their feelings. Instead, they were asked how well they remembered the particular car (they too used a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “I don’t remember anything about the car” and 7 being “I remember the car very well”).

Half of the people went through this experiment for four cars and four attributes (simple condition) and half went through for four cars and 12 attributes (complex condition).

After they had viewed all the attributes and cars, Mikels asked each participant to choose which car was best, based on the attributes.

Lastly, he had each participant rate the importance of each attribute on a 7-point scale, with 1 being that the attribute—gas mileage, for example—was not important and 7 being that it was very important.

What were the results?

For this experiment, there was an actual best car: of the four cars, one had 75 percent positive attributes, two had 50 percent positive attributes, and one had 25 percent positive attributes—which means there was a “right” answer (that is, the car with 75 percent positive attributes).

For the simple condition (four cars, four attributes), there was no significant difference between the people who were given instructions to focus on feelings and the people who were told to focus on information. Both the feelings people and the information people performed similarly when picking the best car.

But there were significant differences for the complex condition (four cars, 12 attributes). Sixty-eight percent of the people in the feelings group picked the best car option, while only 26 percent of the information group chose the best car option. Figure 18.1 shows the data.

FIGURE 18.1 Feelings group versus information group results for simple and complex conditions.

Satisfaction And Confidence

Mikels ran the experiment again, but this time he had participants make only the complex decisions, and there was no objective “right” answer. Each of the four cars had half positive and half negative attributes. Instead of an objective right answer, he used importance ratings from each participant to determine the best choice for them.
In addition, he asked participants to rate how satisfied they were with their car choice (on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 was not at all satisfied and 7 was extremely satisfied). He also asked how confident they were that they had made the best choice (on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 was not confident and 7 was highly confident).

Again, the people in the feelings group made better car option decisions (based on their own importance ratings of attributes) than the people in the information group.

Look at Figure 18.2. The feelings group not only made better decisions, but also were more satisfied with their choice and more confident that they’d made the right choice.

FIGURE 18.2 Satisfaction and confidence for the feelings and information groups.

What About Giving Time For Deliberation?

We’re not quite done with Mikels. In his third experiment in this series, he wanted to see if giving people time to deliberate made a difference. So he redid the experiment with the complex task only, but this time he assigned half of the participants to a “conscious deliberation” group and half to a “distraction” group. He told the conscious deliberation participants to think about the decision for 3 minutes before choosing a car. He gave the distraction participants a non-related working memory task for 3 minutes. (Look at random numbers that are shown for 2 seconds and respond if the number is the same number that appeared two trials before.) At the end of 3 minutes, both groups were told to choose one of the four cars as the best for them.

So what happened? Figure 18.3 shows the results.

FIGURE 18.3 The results of distraction and deliberation.

  • The people in the information group who were given 3 minutes to deliberate did as well as the people in the feelings group who did not deliberate. Taking time to think about a decision helped people when they were making a complex decision and had evaluated the information.
  • The people in the information group who were distracted by an unrelated task did worse than those who just quietly deliberated.
  • Doing an unrelated task didn’t make a difference to the feelings group. They did as well as the information group. But when the feelings group was asked to deliberate on the decision, their accuracy plummeted.

Decisions For Designers About Information Vs. Feelings

At this point you might be saying, “Wait, I can’t do anything about this. I can’t get inside someone’s head when they’re making a decision.” True, but if you make design decisions about what and/or when information is provided, then your design can either help or hinder people’s ability to make better decisions.

Here’s what I draw from Mikels’s research: If people have to make a complex decision, then you have two choices as a designer:

  1. Give them just the critical information up front, tell them to focus on the information, and don’t ask them to decide right away. Tell them to take a few minutes before they decide.

or

  1. Give them just the critical information up front, tell them to focus on how they feel rather than analyze the data, and then ask them to decide right away.

If you think that people will be using feelings to decide, then you definitely want to minimize the amount of time between when they have all the feeling information and when they decide.

The Big Mistake That Most People Make

Jim goes to a car website. He’s trying to decide whether he should buy a new car now and, if so, whether it should be the XYZ brand, which model is the right one for him and his family, and whether he can afford it—a set of complex decisions.

When he gets to the website there’s a picture of the car and it looks great (feeling). He watches the video of the family going on an adventurous vacation in the new car (feeling). He looks at the ratings for fuel efficiency and safety (information). He compares the different models through photos and data (information). Now he’s ready to make a decision based on just the minimum amount of information he needed, and lots of feelings about which model is right for him and whether this car is right for him at this time.

So this is the golden moment. He’s made the decision to buy and has chosen the model. This complex decision has been based mainly on feelings, and he hasn’t had time to deliberate (which you now know through Mikels’s work will only result in him making a bad decision). If you’re the designer of this experience, then so far you’ve done a great job getting the person to make the best decision.

What you need to do next is get him to commit to the decision immediately. You should present a short form and get him to mark his decision.
You could show a series of statements and have him choose the one that fits his decision:

  • “Yes, I’ve decided. The X model is the best car for me.”
  • “I like the X model, but this isn’t the right time for me to buy a car. I might buy at some point in the future.”
  • “Thanks, but this is not the right car for me.”

Get him to make a choice and then get him out of there. When he makes the choice, take him to a page that gives him the next step and tells him an email is on its way with a list of the closest dealers. The idea is to get him off the information-laden page before he starts looking at more information and deliberating.

If you’re like most designers, you don’t do this. Instead, you miss the golden moment. You don’t ask him to decide and you don’t get him off the page. Instead, you think, “We gave him all that engagement/emotion information and a few of the specs, now let’s give him all the data so he’ll see that this is the right decision.” You start giving him detailed specs to review (wheel base, turning radius, 5-year maintenance and repair costs, ownership cost ratings). You cause a “deliberation” phase, and by doing so you significantly decrease the chances that he’ll make the best decision.

Note
Here’s an important caveat. Mikels (2013) repeated his experiments a few years after the first series. He ran similar experiments with people whose average age was over 70. He found that older people are much more likely to use their intuition and feelings for decisions; in fact, they disregard the rational information too much. As a result, their feelings decisions about complex issues were often not the best choice.

Takeaways

  • When you’re presenting information to people under age 70 who have to make a complex decision, encourage them to use their feelings. In the middle of the process, ask them how they feel about the options.
  • Even when you instruct people to use their feelings, you can’t guarantee that they’re using their feelings, so it’s best to design the flow of information this way: a) Provide the minimum amount of information necessary, b) ask for the decision, and c) once they decide, stop providing them with information.
  • When you’re presenting information to people over age 70 who have to make a complex decision, don’t encourage them to use their feelings.
  • When you’re presenting information to people who have to make a simple decision, give them the minimum amount of information necessary to make the decision and don’t worry about instructions to use feelings, or preventing deliberation.

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