Business Psychology

Article No. 327
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Change Your Mind, Please!

New findings in preference reversal research.

Have you ever wanted someone to change their mind? For example, when a valued employee hands you his 2-week notice, when a customer tells you she's decided to purchase a comparable product or service from a competitor, when your banker tells you your loan application has been denied, when your spouse tells you she's decided to trade you in for a new and improved model, or when your daughter tells you she's decided to marry the unemployed kid with spikes in his hair who's been hanging around lately. These are all occasions when your heart aches and your mind whirls in frustration searching for a strategy to reverse the decision. Grasping, yet coming up with nothing.

Would it surprise you to learn that there is a body of research that investigates this need? It's called preference reversal.

When people have many choices and then make a decision, they must first form a preference. The fact is, preferences are very fragile. Usually, there isn't a lot of difference between choice A and choice B. That's why people have trouble making up their minds and switch their preferences, and if you'd like to see this in operation, there's an experiment you can try.

Select two competing products that vary in price and quality. One day, show your spouse one of the products and ask her to rate it and explain why she gave it the rating she did. Wait a week and repeat this exercise with the second item. Again, ask her to rate it and explain why she gave it the rating she did. Wait another week. This time, give her two different competing products at the same time that vary in price and quality. Ask her to tell you which one she prefers and why. If your experiment works, when evaluating the choices individually, quality will be the more important factor. The higher priced, higher quality product will be her choice. When evaluating the second set of products side-by-side, price will be the more important factor. The lower cost product will be her preference and her choice.

Why do you suppose this difference affects preference formation?

Stephen Gould, from City University of New York, investigates this subject, and recently, he conducted three experiments exploring it. He was interested to learn what goes through people's minds as they form preferences. He asked his subjects to complete tasks similar to the ones described above and to write down their thoughts as they did so. Next, Gould analyzed what they wrote.

Gould knew from previous research that people use one part of their brains for joint evaluations and another for separate evaluations. His analysis of the thoughts his subjects wrote down confirmed this.

When you read this research, you can't help but get excited. Altering the preference-formation task a person completes will change the portion of their brain he/she employs to arrive at preferences, and, with any luck, change the preference and the decision that flows from it. You can get people to change their minds.

For example, if an employee jointly considers two jobs, he/she may line up easily quantifiable factors and compare them, for example, he may compare salary. A preference for one and a decision may follow, and you may lose a valuable employee. But if you change the preference-formation task and ask the person to list all the important factors of the job he/she has, then you've changed the problem. You've made it more complex, and different thinking will be focused on the problem. The decision may well reverse.

Altering the preference-formation task for another person can be accomplished easily. You only need to listen closely and determine if joint or separate evaluations of alternatives has taken place. The daughter who has considered the unemployed kid with spikes in his hair and rated him as "Mr. Wonderful," has not done a side-by-side comparison of alternatives open to her. The employee who has only considered salary in evaluating two jobs has not done a thorough rating task. Once you know which preference formation strategy the person has used, you can respond accordingly. You can direct the attention of a person employing joint evaluation to a separate evaluation task, or you can direct the attention of a person employing separate evaluation to a joint evaluation task. If you develop skill in making this switch, you'll likely have much greater success in getting decisions you can live with. Your valued employee may decide to stay. Your spouse may decide to keep you around the house a little longer, and your daughter may decide to go away to school after all and get that degree. And so on and so forth.

Reference: Gould, Stephen J. and Thomas Kramer (2009) "What's it Worth to Me?" Three Interpretive Studies of the Relative Roles of Task-oriented and Reflexive Processes in Separate versus Joint Value Construction. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30, 840-858.

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