Undecided Voters? Not Really.

At dinner the other night my husband said, “How the heck could anyone be undecided two weeks before the election, when this campaign has been going on so long?”

“It’s simple”, I responded. “They aren’t undecided at all.”
“Explain that one”, was his reply.
I’ve been recently reading research on unconscious mental processing (for the book I have just finished writing). In the case of the election, when people say they are undecided, I think they actually have decided who they want to vote for, but it’s not a conscious, rational, decision. I’ts an emotional, unconscious decision. The undecided voters haven’t found a rational reason to put on top of their unconscious decision. The decided voters made an unconscious emotional decision too, but they have figured out rational reasons to tell themselves and others about why they made the decision they made. (The reasons, by the way, are not really accurate – the research calls this “confabulation”, meaning people make up reasons which they believe are true, but actually aren’t. The real reasons are emotional and non-verbal).
This unconscious emotional decision with a rational reason on top is true, actually of all decisions we make. (See the blog before this one on choices).
When Colin Powell announced he was supporting Barack Obama, one person I know, that had been undecided, immediately said he was now decided. Why? He said that if Colin Powell likes Barack Obama that must mean that Obama will be good for the troops. And, he continued, caring about our troops was always very important to him. He had never said before that he was undecided because he didn’t know where the candidates stood on the troops. I think my friend had decided for quite some time that he wanted to vote for Obama, but that decision was unconscious, and he couldn’t figure out a reason that he could say to himself and others that was consistent with his self-image, his persona. “Good for the troops” was the rational, logical, reason he could put on top of the non-verbalized unconscious decision. And now he was suddenly “decided”.
We make the decision first, unconsciously, and then search for some kind of reason to stick on top that will sound logical and will fit with our persona.

How Do People Decide – The Order Effect

I like to think that when I decide to buy something it’s because I’ve thought it through and it’s the best purchase. Logically and rationally. But I’ve read too much research on the unconscious and on decision making. So I know that people, including me, make decisions based on unconscious processing and that I don’t use logic as much as I’d like to think I do.

There’s this great research study that proves two concepts: 1) We don’t pay attention to very many attributes about a product, 2) We tend to choose the first item that appears on a product page of a web site.

Here’s the research citation:
Felfernig, A., G. Friedrich, B. Gula, M. Hitz, T. Kruggel, G. Leitner, R. Melcher, D. Riepan, S. Strauss, E. Teppan, and O. Vitouch. 2007. Persuasive recommendation: Serial position effects in knowledge-based recommender systems. In Persuasive Technology, Second International Conference on Persuasive Technology. New York: Springer.

Felfernig set up a website with tents. He had visitors to the site fill out a questionnaire about the type of camping they planned to do. Then the site recommended four tents based on ten different attributes, such as waterproofing, weight, air ventilation, etc. Based on the questionnaire you filled out, two of the four tents are rated as “best buys” for the attributes that are important to you. Which tent will you buy? Tent 1, 2, 3, or 4?

Even though there were ten attributes that the tents were compared on, participants in the study paid attention to only 2 or 3 of the attributes. And when it came time to pick a tent, the participants in the study didn’t even consider the attributes. They picked the first tent more than 2.5 times than any other. They chose the first one 200 times versus 60 for all the other choices combined.

But, just like me, the participants explained their choice, based on the logical decision they thought they were making. They would explain the choice of tent #1 by saying, “This tent is the most waterproof”, for example. They thought they were weighing all the attributes of all the tents, but in reality they were only looking at a few attributes and even those didn’t matter… all that mattered was which tent showed up first.

I’m going to see if I can pay attention to this the next time I go to buy something at a website where there are several choices on the page at once. Maybe if I notice I’m doing it I won’t be so prone to doing it?