Are We In Control Of Our Own Decisions?

Having studied advertising and being in the digital marketing industry, I have often wondered: Are we actually in control of our own decisions? Do we buy what we buy or make the decisions that we make because we are aware of what we are doing, or do we do these things because of what we are presented with? Everyone makes bad decisions now and then. We feel stupid, and go on living our lives and making more bad decisions. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part about these mistakes is that we can’t actually help it.

So I turned to the one source that always has an answer for me: Mama G, also known as Google. I came across a few very interesting TED talks on the topic. One of the talks that I came across is by a very interesting man called Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. His approach is experimental rather than historical or theoretical. In the course of his research, Ariely has served beer mixed with vinegar, left plates full of dollar bills in dorm refrigerators, and asked undergraduates to fill out surveys while masturbating. He claims that his experiments, and others like them, reveal the underlying logic to our illogic.

Ariely goes on to demonstrate that vision is our key sense. We have a major part of our brain dedicated to seeing – larger than those parts dedicated to anything else. According to Ariely, we use sight for more hours of the day than any other sense. We’re evolutionarily designed to use vision. And if our vision, which is arguably our most developed sense, repeatedly fails us as shown in these examples, what are the chances our other, less developed senses aren’t doing the same, thus negatively affecting important issues such as, for example, financial decision-making?

R Beau Lotto is a lecturer in neuroscience at University College London.
All images supplied by R Beau Lotto.

Above is an example of how vision can create an illusion. Both green lines are the same length, yet if we take them away you would’t say that they could be; once removed, you cannot see that they are the same, even after seeing proof. Our intuition is really fooling us in a repeated, predictable, consistent way, but we can solve the issue by taking a ruler and measuring the two lines.

Cognitive illusions, on the other hand – also known as “mind games” – are something we don’t have an evolutionary reason to engage with, we don’t have a specialised part of the brain for processing, and we don’t spend that many hours of the day immersed in. The argument in these cases is that it might be that we actually make many more errors in judgement than what we have the capacity to recognise. In visual illusions, we can easily demonstrate how our eyes are deceiving us; in cognitive illusions it’s much harder to demonstrate the tricks our minds play on us. Mind games are commonly used in advertising today; unnecessary options are presented to us to makes us believe that one option is superior to/more profitable than another.

Take this example below, an advert from the Economist.

Looking at this advert, the obvious option would be to choose the last offer, this was tested on 100 students and this was the result:

Now you might notice that the 2nd option is a “useless” option, it doesn’t add anything but it is there for you to feel that the third option is a bargain. Take that option away and your decision will be a very different one.

We are presented with these types of illusions every day of our lives, making us believe that we are making the right choices when, in fact, we are being tricked into buying things we don’t need or making choices that aren’t necessarily our own. This technique is being widely used by marketers and advertisers to sway people’s decisions in favour of their products or services.

Most of us will blissfully go about our lives without ever catching onto this and other subtle techniques used by marketers to entice us to buy their products. However, by practicing a little logic when reading advertisements. And now that we’ve been made aware of this technique, perhaps we can learn to spot a marketing ploy and avoid making decisions led by clever advertising in future.

To view the TED talk click on the link.

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