Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 252
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Unconscious Mind Sets

Research reveals new understandings of how we make decisions.

Ordinarily, we think of a "mind set" as a deliberate act. A man sets his mind on climbing a mountain. A woman sets her mind on completing a college education, and so on. In recent years, researchers have discovered that we often adopt mind sets without realizing it, and they guide decision making. Donnel Briley, from Hong Kong University, has been studying one variety of mind set, one he calls a "group mind set."

A group mind set is stimulated when people are made aware of themselves as members of a group, any group, and one common feature of this mind set is a prevention focus.

With a group mind set and a prevention focus, people tend to be aware of the possible negative consequences of their actions and decisions, and they try to eliminate them to prevent problems from arising. As an unconscious process, this leads to a reluctance to recognize benefits that could come with decisions, so people are reluctant to try new products. People may also choose to remain in difficult situations when a decision to move would clearly be best for them.

Professor Briley conducted a series of experiments exploring the limits of group mind sets, and his findings led him to some useful conclusions.

When Briley assigned people to groups to accomplish a task, they clearly adopted a group mind set, so in following experiments, he tested other means of triggering a group mind set. He was surprised to find how easy it was to do so.

Using plural pronouns in conversations with people did it. Plural pronouns such as "we" and "our" triggered a group mind set while singular pronouns such as "I" and "my" did not. Specific references to family triggered it. References to cultural images, like an American flag, did it. Even references to shared knowledge and experiences did it, for example, Abraham Lincoln or 9-11.

Once a group mind set is triggered, people are sensitive to the risk of negative consequences that could come with their actions, especially negative consequences that could come to others in the group(s) to which they belong. For example, spending money for a product that does not work takes money away from one's family without providing any benefit. It hurts one's family.

Briley also found that when a group mind set is triggered, people presented with decisions search for compromise choices, and their reasons for selecting these choices are negative. It isn't beneficial features that they seek, it is the absence of risky or extreme features that attracts them. He also found that these compromises often have nothing to do with the group(s) to which they belong. People even seek a compromise when only they would be affected by the decision.

Briley found that when a group mind set was active, people expressed a clear preference for equality in interpersonal situations. They wanted fair treatment that would bring no special reward or hardship on others.

The most important conclusion Professor Briley draws from his work involves marketing. We often place people in social situations using our products, but doing so triggers a group mind set with its accompanying protective focus. If we also deliver a message that is consistent with this mind set, one that emphasizes preventing problems, such as the safety, reliability, and durability of our products, then our message will be heard. People with this mind set are searching for such a message. But if our message emphasizes superior performance, then it will be inconsistent with their group mind set, and it will not be heard, and it may even convince them to keep searching for another, compromise choice, one that poses less risk of disappointment. As a rule, providing a compromise choice appears to be smart business.

Finally, Briley's work gives us a way to recognize when people are in a group mind set. We can listen to the pronouns they use. If they are plural, such as "we" and "our," and if people appear to be thinking about others, family members, for example, then we could conclude that they are in a group mind set, and we could tailor our communications appropriately.

Reference: Briley, Donnel, and Robert Wyer, Jr. (2002) The Effect of Group Membership Salience on the Avoidance of Negative Outcomes: Implications for Social and Consumer Decisions. Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (December), 400- 415.

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