External (and internal) influences on decisions

We like to think that we are in control of our decisions. Yet evidence from various neuroeconomics and marketing studies have shown that many of the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives have less to do with our own personal choices than we would like to think, and that we are instead easily influenced by internal visceral states and external suggestions and primes. According to Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed, many of the decisions we make, particularly in supermarkets and shopping situations, are often determined by manipulations made by marketing executives. Whole Foods and other supermarkets prime us to shop by arranging their stores, displays and prices in a certain way to make us perceive their products in a particular manner. They fill their stores with flowers, particularly right at the entrances, connoting freshness and evoking thoughts of newly picked produce right from the fields, when in fact much of these products have been sitting in warehouses for weeks. They also display items packed unnecessarily in ice or sprayed with water, again ensuring us of their freshness and vitality. These manipulations do little for the products themselves, but affect our perception of them and therefore our willingness to pay.

Bodily states can also alter our decision-making processes and preferences. Previous studies investigating the effect of visceral states on external decisions have shown that when in a condition of hunger, people have a greater desire not only for food but also for money. Fasted individuals also make riskier bets on a financial decision-making task involving lottery choices, opting for the riskier option significantly more often when fasted, and choosing the safer bet when full. This finding is supported by the animal literature, in which animals are more risk-averse when sated but risk-seeking when hungry. This is presumably an evolutionarily selected trait prompting exploration and risk-seeking when in states of hunger, which could potentially lead to the acquisition of new food sources.

A similar "state of urgency" might be expected to be seen in situations where people have to use the restroom, choosing an immediate satisfaction over long-term outcomes. However, in a clever study published last year in Psychological Science (and that recently won an Ig Noble award), individuals with a full bladder actually chose the delayed reward more often than instant gratification.

Led by Mirjam Tuk, researchers in the Netherlands had participants consume either 700 or 50 ml of water and then complete a delay discounting task. The discounting task involved binary decisions between two set options, one a small reward that participants could receive immediately and the other a reward of greater magnitude they would receive after a certain period of time. Participants also had to indicate how badly they needed to urinate, ranging from "very urgently" to "not urgently at all". Individuals who had consumed the larger amounts of water (and who reported a greater urgency to urinate) chose the delayed option more often than those who had received the smaller serving of water.

Researchers hypothesized that this was because bladder control involves deliberate inhibitory measures on the individual's part, which then promote inhibition and self-control in other aspects of life. The authors call this idea "inhibitory spill over", where conscious cognition in one aspect, influenced by a visceral state, leaks over into other domains. This contradicts other theories of self-control, which believe restraint to be a limited personal resource that can be depleted through instances of restriction in one area, thereby allowing lapses of control at other instances.

These studies provide evidence that we should be aware of our surroundings and current physical and mental states when making important decisions, particularly concerning money. Clearly we do not live or function in a vacuum, nor make our decisions in one, but being mindful of the subconscious influences that are upon us, both internally and externally, can help us to make better decisions with a clearer mind and less biased approach.

Dana Smith

PhD student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge