Be a winner: come in second

It seems counterintuitive but most of us pick the second choice.

Canadian researchers gave subjects a free granola bar. They we shown the first and asked if they wanted to check out a second one hidden behind a screen. Not surprising, 95 per cent were curious about the second option. Even though they were virtually the same, 68 per cent chose the second.


To make sure that it wasn’t just something peculiar about granola bars, researchers conducted similar experiments that included two similar clock radios, electric toothbrushes, coffee makers, and in one case a hypothetical scenario where they chose between different restaurants, reports Susan Krashinsky in the Globe and Mail.

Regardless of the products, they were drawn to the second choice. A researcher explained: “They’re much more likely to select the alternative that was initially out of sight.”

There are two explanations, one based on psychology and the other on a shift in consumer norms.

A psychological concept called “self-perception theory” states that we make assumptions about other people’s attitudes, beliefs or preferences based on their actions. It makes sense. What else would rational people do but act in manner consistent with their beliefs?

Extend that to ourselves, and it’s equally reasonable. We justify the fact that we are walking away from the first choice by telling ourselves that we don’t want it. It’s a way of rationalizing our actions.

If we behave a certain way, we subconsciously infer that’s what we want to do. “Why would I be approaching the second choice,” we might internally ask ourselves, “if I didn’t want it?”

This self-perception theory is a subset of cognitive dissonance –the idea that inner tension develops when we do something that does not fit within our beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something has to give. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs leads to disharmony, which people strive to avoid.

Say a man smokes. His doctor tells him that it’s bad for health. He might resolve the tension between his behaviour and the conflicting belief by telling himself that he would put on weight if he stopped and that would be unhealthy. His actions are consistent with his belief: smoking keeps him healthy.

The second explanation is cultural. With brand loyalty on the wane in Canada, consumers are striking out on their own to find the best products.

According to a report from marketing agency, consumers are more likely to see themselves as “influencers” and to want to make their own decisions, or to lean on the advice of friends and family, than listen to marketing messages.

Word of mouth has always been powerful, but with the culture of social media, people have a growing sense of their own influence and may be less open to marketers’ messages than ever.

“Consumers really want to be invested, and part of their own decision-making, as opposed to being sold something,” says Veritas president Krista Weber.

It used to be that retailers wanted to be on top of a Google search list. Now a more subtle approach would be not to be first, but not so far down the list as to be inconspicuous.


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