The choice is yours. Or is it a decision?

“Decision” and “choice” are not synonyms in psychological terms – they should be seen as different things and need to be appealed to in a different way, according to Dr David Lewis, renowned neuropsychologist, bestselling author and Mindlab founder and chairman. He believes we need to understand how humans make choices in order to help them make the right ones and prevent turning a simple choice into a drawn-out decision.

“Every salesman dreads the phrase: ‘I’ll think about it’. Once a customer starts to think, they’re probably not going to make the purchase because it turns the choice into a decision,” believes Dr David Lewis. “Choices are affected much more by emotions and subconscious influences and are made in a split second. We make decisions in minutes or even months, weighing up the pros and cons almost mathematically.”

He goes on to explain that he thinks many shoppers make choices, not decisions, nearly all the time. “Some of our best and worst choices are made in a semi-hypnotic altered state of consciousness where we aren’t really thinking about something in detail – such as in the shower, on a dog walk or during the weekly shop. During some of my research, I polled people leaving a supermarket and asked if they had bought anything they hadn’t intended to – had they made an impulse buy? They all admitted they had except for one man. I pointed out that he was an unusual shopper and he told me that he was a supermarket manager and knew all the devices. When you’re an expert on something, you tend to be much more driven by decisions rather than choice.”

So how can brand managers, planners and advertisers ensure that their product is an easy choice over competitors? According to Dr Lewis, there are six distinct types of choice:

  1. Forced These are when we are being influenced into making a choice without knowing it, for instance what magicians do when they want you to choose a specific card.
  2. Reflexive These are habit-based choices, such as the way you have always voted.
  3. Conformity These choices are driven by social pressure, for instance, in the past people not expressing their homosexuality.
  4. Emotional These are where a feeling such as joy or fear influence which option we choose.
  5. Factual These are choices based on our memories so they can be based on incorrect assumptions rather than real facts, such as people who are anti-vaccine.
  6. Free These are choices made without external pressure and are very rare. We often think we are making a free choice but are usually strongly influenced by outside pressures or our subconscious.

Dr Lewis suggests that most often, brands appeal to the most powerful of these six – emotional choices. They do this by sending out signals related to feelings of fear, lust, anger, grief and sympathy. Pictures, words, temperatures and music are just some of the ways people can be primed to make a certain choice without them realising.

He goes onto conclude that: “The brain is a pattern recognition machine so when we recognise a pattern (whether we know it or not), it can be a powerful thing. During one famous test, some people were shown pictures of dogs, others were not. Then they were asked to choose between Nike and Puma trainers and those that had seen the dogs were more likely to choose Puma because of the subconscious link to animals.”

“The brain receives a huge amount of information every second and we are consciously aware of only a tiny fraction of these. So for brands, it’s about being aware of the wider picture for consumers and, without being manipulative, helping them make choices easily.”


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