Choice Blindness

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I’ve always wanted to understand how consumers don’t have a higher level of dissatisfaction when they go home with the supermarket’s own brand goods as a mistake instead of a branded product with the apparent answer being choice blindness. It was neatly captured in culture with Bruce Springsteen’s song 57 channels and nothin’ on. (This is the the reason why Tesco, ASDA et al will often have rows of branded goods in the middle of similar looking own brand products, the own-brand products have a higher profit margin for the supermarkets).

New Scientist talks about the phenomena in Choice blindness: You don’t know what you want by Lars Hall and Petter Johansson (April 18,2009):

…in an early study we showed our volunteers pairs of pictures of faces and asked them to choose the most attractive. In some trials, immediately after they made their choice, we asked people to explain the reasons behind their choices.

Unknown to them, we sometimes used a double-card magic trick to covertly exchange one face for the other so they ended up with the face they did not choose. Common sense dictates that all of us would notice such a big change in the outcome of a choice. But the result showed that in 75 per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch, even offering “reasons” for their “choice”.

We called this effect “choice blindness”, echoing change blindness, the phenomenon identified by psychologists where a remarkably large number of people fail to spot a major change in their environment.

I find it facinating that people will even justify their ‘wrong’ decision. Is this just academic? No, it has a major commercial impact which is why many retailers have look a like brands to take advantage of choice blindness. This lead to a court case between ASDA and McViities biscuits over the look a like brand Puffin.

It is at the centre of dark patterns for in-real-life retail. Search in e-tailing acts as a neat filter. But not every retail experience can be satisfactorily transferred online. Secondly promoted items on Amazon and eBay as examples can be as disruptive as retail tactics that take advantage of the phenomenon.

There is a big question so far unanswered about how ethical is retailers use of choice blindness as a tactic. With carefully designed packaging are consumers being deceived? McVities might well believe so. The question of whether consumers are the injured party is more complex. If you ask a consumer that has bought a private label brand, they are likely to post rationalise their purchase rather than experience cognitive dissonance.

So its not the same level of disappointment experienced when one is ‘bait-and-switched’ a real product for a counterfeit purchase. But does that somehow make it more honest?

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