Recent research by Dr. Yu Rongjun shows that changes in our preferences are not only induced by our actual choices, but also by our belief that a specific choice has been made.
After people make a difficult decision between two equally preferred options, they tend to evaluate their chosen option more positively and their rejected option more negatively. This is known as “spreading of alternatives”.
While existing theories suggest that spreading of alternatives arises from people’s reduction of psychological tension (cognitive dissonance) after their actual choice, recent research by Dr. Yu Rongjun (pictured above) from the Department of Psychology in NUS and Ms. Jiayi Luo from South China Normal University has shown that perceived choice—people’s belief in having made a choice without noticing whether the choices were their own actual action or not—also affects preference.
In their study, participants rated the attractiveness of a series of female faces, before being asked to choose between two faces that they had awarded the same rating to. Participants then re-rated the attractiveness of the faces while being given accurate, false, or no feedback about their prior choice. For example, accurate feedback involved presenting a face that participants had initially chosen accompanied by feedback that they had earlier selected this face, whereas false feedback involved telling participants that they had earlier rejected this face.
The researchers found that actual and perceived choice independently affected participants’ preference changes. Actual choice led to spreading of alternatives, whereby participants subsequently indicated higher preference for their selected option and lower preference for their rejected option, even though they had initially rated both options as equally attractive.
At the same time, participants failed to detect most of the instances in which they had been given false feedback, and instead believed that the feedback reflected their choice in most of the trials (i.e., perceived choice). Importantly, this belief influenced their preferences, with accurate feedback enhancing spreading of alternatives and false feedback weakening this effect. That is, false feedback increased participants’ perceived attractiveness of their rejected option and decreased the perceived attractiveness of their chosen option, whereas accurate feedback had the opposite effect.
Dr. Yu commented,
Our findings suggest that our decision-making can be tricked by our beliefs, even though they are false.
The researchers are now using eye-tracking techniques to further investigate the eye gaze patterns underlying these decision-making processes, especially at the very early stage of evaluation. They are particularly interested in understanding at which time point such top-down processes kick in and nudge our decisions.
Luo, J., & Yu, R. (2017). The spreading of alternatives: Is it the perceived choice or actual choice that changes our preference? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 30, 484-491. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/bdm.1967