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Think You Make Smart Decisions? Don’t Be So Sure

Jeff Stibel | Columnist, USA Today | Published on April 15, 2019

What did you eat for dinner last night and why? Who did you vote for in the last election? Why did you choose to marry your husband or wife? These are questions to which the majority of us could provide reasonable answers. But what if you are wrong—what if someone else made those decisions for you?

In a series of experiments, psychologist Petter Johansson demonstrated that unseen forces can heavily influence our decisions, and our reasoning is sometimes only used to justify our decisions in hindsight. His research suggests that we are in far less control of our decisions than we may think, and that people can be made to change their minds about all kinds of things. 

In one experiment, Johansson asked participants to decide which people they found more attractive by showing them a series of pictures of people printed on index cards. The participants were asked to choose between two faces. After they made their selection, Johansson used a sleight of hand to give participants the card they did not pick but asked them to explain why they chose that particular face. Over 80% of the participants did not notice that Johansson had switched the cards, and proceeded to give detailed explanations of why they preferred the face they didn’t actually prefer. What’s more, when Johansson let participants make the choice again, they uniformly chose the face they did not choose the first time.

People were tricked into changing their minds and had no idea it had happened. Johansson and his colleagues labeled this phenomenon “choice blindness,” meaning that sometimes we are blind to our own choices and preferences. 

You may be thinking that choosing between two faces on cards is pretty inconsequential, and that choice blindness surely wouldn’t hold for more important matters. Johansson did another experiment of more magnitude a few years later. This time he gave participants a chart and asked them to rank where they stood on various political issues. Again, he used a trick to completely flip participants’ answers from conservative to liberal and vice versa. This time, 90% of participants failed to detect the switch, and proceeded to justify their fake responses, often reasoning for an opposing political view.  

Researchers have repeated versions of Johansson’s experiments with all kinds of decisions, such as purchasing things as straightforward as jelly and tea, with the same results. All it takes is a little manipulation to make most people choose a different face, a different flavor tea, or a polar opposite political stance. 

The implications are far-reaching. If you are wondering why “fake news” is so dangerous, one reason is that choice blindness makes it easy to trick people’s minds. The most cynical interpretation is that our choices don’t actually matter, that an outside force routinely spins our collective wheels, and that we only justify our decisions after the fact. But as an optimistic brain scientist, I see it differently. 

Johansson’s experiments show that our beliefs are remarkably flexible: we aren’t as rigid in our thinking as we think, and neither are the people around us. If we can get someone to really examine the opposite point of view, and to think as if that view was his or her own, we can change minds.  The old wives’ tale is wise indeed: place yourself in someone else’s shoes before judging. 


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