FREE WILL, CHOICE ARCHITECTURE, AND YOUR WALLET

We live in a data-driven economy in which every nuance of consumer behavior is scrutinized and analyzed to maximize profits for the seller, often times at the expense of the buyer.  We are constantly being nudged, either consciously or unconsciously, to make consumer decisions that may not be in our best interests in terms of time, effort, and money.  We’d like to briefly review some of the science behind the drivers of this reality so you can increase your awareness of attempts to manipulate you, as well as find opportunities that are more mutually beneficial for both the seller and the consumer.

In order to do this, we have to start with free will and the illusion of agency (perceiving that we are the drivers of our brains and in charge of our choices).  Bear with us for a quick thought experiment…

Do this as fast as you can:  Think of any animal and say out loud the first animal that came to your mind.

What did you say?  What other animals popped in your head at that moment?  Why did you pick the one that you did?  Are you aware of censoring out any of them to say the one you “chose?”  Here’s the rub:  You did not will any thoughts or images into your mind when tasked with thinking of an animal, they just appeared into consciousness and THEN you appeared to decide.  Of the one to two millions of species of animals, your brain acted on a handful.  Granted, you don’t know every single species of animal, but you could list quite a few more than you came up with in that short period of time.  They just seemed to pop into your head, right?  The same is true for any thought.  Your choices are always limited by your conscious experience in the current moment.  We don’t will thoughts into conscious awareness, they just seem to arise in response to cues and then we act on them.

We know from numerous studies that electrical activity increases in one’s brain in specific areas related to decisions that are about to happen but that aren’t in conscious awareness yet.  For example, it has been shown that in EEG and imaging studies, electrical activity will build up in brain regions related to moving one’s hand prior to the individual being consciously aware that she is going to move her hand.  So it would appear that one’s conscious experience of deciding to act in some way (i.e. the perception of having free will) is really just an immediate post-event, mental reconstruction of the action.  Your perception of “free will” happens after the brain has already initiated the precursor of action.  In a sense, our perception is along for the ride, and it only feels like we are the agents of our decisions.

So, we are limited by a finite number of possible actions that arise in consciousness AND we aren’t conscious of the precursor to action that has already set our behavior in motion.  We may not like this notion because it appears to remove personal responsibility from choices that are made, but that’s another blog post on another website.  We may not always like the theory of gravity either (like when you’re falling off of a cliff), but the evidence supports it.

Now let’s apply this to business and consumer behavior.  Unless it’s the mafia, if we strip down a business to its functional essence, we are left with a mechanism of exchange that convinces people to hand over their money for something in return without having to resort to violence.  The very nature of capitalism demands that in order to survive in a competitive market, this exchange has to be maximized and exploited efficiently and often times very subtly so as not to violate your trust and keep your perception of a mutually beneficial relationship intact.

Enter Choice Architecture.  We’re not going to cover everything here, as there is a vast amount of invaluable literature behind choice architecture that is well-funded by massive corporations and high paid economists because it yields results (i.e. profits).

In a nutshell, choice architecture is basically the construction of different methods in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision-making.  This includes things like the number of choices you are presented with, how products are displayed, how their attributes are described, and often a “default.”

A default is essentially when one selection is already made for you, and it requires action on your part to change.  Take organ donation for instance:  donor registration is twice as high when potential donors have to opt out versus opt into donor registration.  Defaults are also very common in the insurance and investment business.  Parents use them on kids, and kids use them on adults.  Limit the available options provided and alter the incentives for the individual and you can change their behavior.

Start looking around for choice architecture when you shop or in any transactional exchange, and you’ll get better and better at spotting these clever marketing constructions and other attempts at manipulating behavior.  They are everywhere you shop, and for good reason.  It manipulates our behavior by priming our choices, which, as noted above, are not fully under our control.  Developing your awareness of this fact can increase the choices and decision trees that arise into consciousness and make you a more educated consumer.  While you may not be fully in control of your behavior, you can nudge it into decisions that are more beneficial to you by increasing the scope of what arises in consciousness.

Here is where we come in: As consumption decisions have increasingly moved online, consumers like yourselves rely on search engines and product recommendation systems (that’s us!) to find and evaluate products of their interest.  This reduces the time and effort related to intelligent consumer behavior and therefore hopefully makes it more enjoyable.  It should be noted that, based on the above, this site has the ability to subtly shape your decisions, simply based on what we decide to list here, how we present it, the images we choose, what we write about it, the default order, etc.

We do hope that you find things that you are looking for and discover things that you didn’t know you wanted.  Full disclosure:  It’s in our best interests for you to click on “more details” and head to the seller’s site and make a purchase.  However, our goal is to present products here that provide an entertaining experience while you make your consumer decisions.

We don’t list anything because we think it’s going to be a bestseller and make us a ton of money.  In fact, the bulk of anything we earn is from other products you buy from the seller.  We simply list things that we think are funny, entertaining, or interesting, and hopefully our visitors do as well.

If we get even one chuckle out of you and you come back for more as a regular visitor, that genuinely makes us happy, as it means we’ve provided something of value to you and had some sort of positive effect on other people.  If you are not entertained, all you have to do is click on that little “x” at the top right of your browsing tab, but be forewarned, before you do so, your brain has already decided to either be entertained or head for the exit.

Enjoy the ride and your perceived agency.  We’re glad you’re here.  Thanks for reading!

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