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Choice Without Preference

Most marketers subscribe to the belief that preference leads to choice. Yet consumers often choose against their preferences. A new study reveals why.

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As marketers, we hold certain truths to be self-evident. We believe that lower prices lead to higher sales, satisfaction leads to loyalty, and choice is driven by preference. In fact, there are many cases when every single one of these “truths” can be decisively refuted. They persist as axioms because they are generally true in ordinary circumstances.

Yet, the third of these simple truths—the belief that preference drives choice—is perhaps the most blindly accepted. In my experience working with brands, I have sat through presentation after presentation where this belief was re-asserted without so much as a fidget from the most discerning of participants. Indeed, I myself have written many a slide that demonstrates the importance of driving preference in order to drive performance for the brand. Unfortunately, this assertion neglects a powerful quality of human life: self-control.

We mortals have a tendency to believe a consistently god-like quality. We believe in mind over matter. Scroll your Instagram feed and you will find countless affirmations such as, “if you can dream it, you can do it.” These sayings are uplifting because they create hope that one can control one’s future. Certainly, this is true in many cases, but it overlooks the well-published findings of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who gained fame by debunking the myth of our logical mind. We are not, as we suppose, logical beings who happen to feel. We are feeling beings who happen to think. Thus, two great forces are persistently waged into conflict: our emotional desires against our rational will. Therein, too, lies the problem with the preference/choice paradigm.

Imagine that you and I are dining at a restaurant. The menu features a fine selection of well-marbled and perfectly aged steaks, but it also offers several healthy salads. When we place our orders, I choose a salad. If you infer that I prefer salads, you clearly do not know me. I prefer food with parents. But perhaps I’m dieting. Or, more likely, I binged on a carnivorous feast the day before and I’m choosing to offer my body flora over fauna (it happens). Regardless, my choice has nothing to do with my preference. It is an act of self-control.

Marketers have a hard time understanding this dimension of consumer behavior. We want to believe that, if you prefer our product or service to other brands, it will reliably influence your purchase decisions. Yet there are plenty of reasons to believe that is often not so. The blindness not only leads to bad decisions in positioning, packaging and messaging, but also to missed opportunities, as a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals.

Titled, “How Self-Control Shapes the Meaning of Choice,” the authors find that self-control does more than influence our decisions in the present. It also influences our perceptions of past decisions. In one of the experiments, respondents were shown pictures of paintings by renowned artists and asked to choose one. Afterward, the researchers had one group of respondents engage in a priming activity such as unscrambling sentences that included words like grit, willpower and discipline. Activities like these have been previously shown to focus consumer thinking toward self-control. Respondents were then asked to reflect on their previous art selection decision and rate how much of it was driven by their preference and how much was driven by their past experience. The group that was primed with self-control stimulus was less inclined to rate their selection as a matter of preference.

These experiments remind me of other research on self-validation. For example, new car buyers have been found more likely to explain their purchase decision based on their experience negotiating a deal than on the fundamental preferences and emotional sensations that led them to a make or model in the first place. We all want to believe that the diabolical mini-me working the controls in our brain is more powerful than the sensational witchcraft of indulgence that conjures our preferences.

For marketers, the implications are intriguing. On the one hand, there are many occasions in which we should ignore the preference/choice paradigm because the consumer’s desire for self-control is truly driving decision-making (as in my steak/salad example). In these instances, marketers should re-enforce the goals that a consumer wishes to achieve.

However, the authors of the JCR study raise an important concern. They suggest that consumers may be less loyal to brands that cater to self-control. The decision, after all, is often in conflict with their intrinsic preference. When they decide to indulge in their true desire, an innocent brand may get dismissed because of its close categorical association with its self-control-satisfying peers. Interestingly, the authors suggest that brands that appeal to preference may wish to create shelf distance between themselves and the self-control brands to mitigate this problem. In fact, a brand that appeals to preference may want to be categorized differently, positioning itself in an entirely new context. It’s kind of the reverse of the vitaminwater strategy, in which the upstart brand got shelved closer to water in order to distance itself from its sugary soda peers.


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