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Why consumers can't make decisions

Why it’s difficult for consumers to make decisions

Some people meet, fall in love and get married right away. Others can spend hours in the sock aisle at the department store, weighing the pros and cons of buying a pair of wool argyles instead of cotton stripes.

Seeing the world as black and white, in which choices seem clear, or shades of grey can affect people’s path in life, from jobs and relationships to which political candidate they vote for, researchers say. People who often have conflicting feelings about situations—the shades-of-grey thinkers—have more of what psychologists call ambivalence, while those who tend toward unequivocal views have less ambivalence.

High ambivalence may be useful in some situations, and low ambivalence in others, researchers say. Although people don’t fall neatly into one camp or the other, in general, individuals who tend toward ambivalence do so fairly consistently across different areas of their lives.

For decades psychologists largely ignored ambivalence because they didn’t think it was meaningful. The way researchers studied attitudes—by asking participants where they fell on a scale ranging from positive to negative—also made it difficult to tease apart who held conflicting opinions from those who were neutral, according to Mark Zanna, a University of Waterloo professor who studied ambivalence. (Similarly, psychologists long believed it wasn’t necessary to examine men and women separately when studying the way people think.)

Now, researchers have been investigating how ambivalence, or lack of it, affects people’s lives, and how they might be able to make better decisions. Overall, thinking in shades of grey is a sign of maturity, enabling people to see the world as it is. It’s a “coming to grips with the complexity of the world,” says Jeff Larsen, a psychology professor who studies ambivalence at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

In a recent study, college students were asked to write an essay coming down on one side or another of a contentious issue, regarding a new law affecting young adults, while other groups of students were allowed to write about both sides of the issue. The students forced to choose a side reported feeling “more uncomfortable, even physically sweating more”, says Frenk van Harreveld , a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam who studies how people deal with ambivalence.

Why consumers can't make decisions

Consumers decisions

If there isn’t an easy answer, ambivalent people, more than black-and-white thinkers, are likely to procrastinate and avoid making a choice, for instance about whether to take a new job, says Dr. Harreveld. But if after careful consideration an individual still can’t decide, one’s gut reaction may be the way to go. Dr. van Harreveld says in these situations he flips a coin, and if his immediate reaction when the coin lands on heads is negative, then he knows what he should do.

Researchers can’t say for sure why some people tend towards greater ambivalence. Certain personality traits play a role—people with a strong need to conclude a given situation tend to black-and-white thinking, while ambivalent people tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty. Individuals who are raised in environments where their parents are ambivalent or unstable may grow to experience anxiety and ambivalence in future relationships, according to some developmental psychologists.

Culture may also play a role. In Western cultures, simultaneously seeing both good and bad “violates our worldview, our need to put things in boxes,” says Dr. Larsen. But in Eastern philosophies, it may be less problematic because there is a recognition of dualism, that something can be one thing as well as another.

One of the most widely studied aspects of ambivalence is how it affects thinking. Because of their strongly positive or strongly negative views, black-and-white thinkers tend to be quicker at making decisions than highly ambivalent people. But if they get mired in one point of view and can’t see others, black-and-white thinking may prompt conflict with others or unhealthy thoughts or behaviour.

People with clinical depression, for instance, often get mired in a negative view of the world. They may interpret a neutral action like a friend not waving to them as meaning that their friend is mad at them, and have trouble thinking about alternative explanations.

Ambivalent people, on the other hand, tend to systematically evaluate all sides of an argument before coming to a decision. They scrutinise carefully the evidence that is presented to them, making lists of pros and cons, and rejecting overly simplified information.

Ambivalent individuals’ ability to see all sides of an argument and feel mixed emotions appears to have some benefits. They may be better able to empathize with others’ points of view, for one thing. When people can feel mixed emotions, such as hope and sadness, they tend to have healthier coping strategies, such as when a spouse passes away, according to Dr. Larsen. They may also be more creative because the different emotions lead them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have dismissed.

People waffling over a decision may benefit from paring down the number of details they are weighing and instead selecting one or a few important values to use in basing their decision, says Richard Boyatzis, a professor in organisational behaviour, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University.

For example, in deciding on whether to buy costly new designer apparel, a lady may weigh the expense, considering the opportunity to wear against its desirability. But ultimately Dr Boyatzis says to avoid getting mired in a prolonged debate, the lady may decide on a core value—say, how close it is the to overall proximity of style in her existing wardrobe — that can be used to help make the decision.

Black-and-white thinkers similarly may recognise that there are positive and negative aspects to a significant relationship. But they generally choose to focus only on some qualities that are particularly important to them.

By contrast, people who are truly ambivalent in a relationship can’t put the negative out of their minds. They may “worry about being hurt or abandoned even in moments when their partner is doing something nice”, says Mario Mikulincer, dean of the New School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya in Israel.

Such shades-of-gray people tend to have trouble in relationships. They stay in relationships longer, even abusive ones, and experience more fighting. They are also more likely to get divorced, says Dr. Mikulincer.

Recognising that a partner has strengths and weaknesses is normal, says Dr. Mikulincer. “A certain degree of ambivalence is a sign of maturity,” he says.

With so many personalisation options and possibilities, things start to get complex – how are you supposed to know what every one of your customers likes? How can you tailor your campaigns around them individually without spending too much time on it?

That’s where automation and data analytics come in. Your customer data is the most valuable thing you can leverage to build personalised campaigns.

A study by O2 showed that adding hyper-personalisation to their ecommerce experience increased sales by 7.8% over a shorter period and that online retailers monitoring their personalisation efforts have seen increases in sales by an average of 19% across the board. For a big company, that figure is worth billions per annum. But does this provoke an instant reaction? The answer is – very rarely, as the message just hasn’t got through yet. 

A full list of the distinctions between the leading 30 Hyper-personalisation vendors is available here.

Hyper-personalisation software for email marketing uses AI machine learning predictive analytics technologies, and identifies the consumer’s future behaviour, providing unique product selections at send time optimised to their needs, in order of greatest likely buying propensity. In other words, the ones most relevant to them. CLV soars and RoR is all but eliminated.

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One Response

  1. You had me in the sock aisle!

    I worked in People Analytics for 20 years and one of the traits we studied and measured was decisiveness. Under decisiveness was risk tolerance. People with low-risk tolerance have difficulty making decisions and of course, the magnitude of the risk/decision factors into that. Still, there are those who stare at their restaurant menu deliberating what to order as if the ripple effect of that decision goes on for years. ⌛

    Enjoyed the article. Your technology sounds very cool.

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