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How 'Pruning' Can Be Influenced by Advertising
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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In a new study published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, new research suggests that when humans are subjected to complicated decisions, their brains subconsciously whittle down the options based on biases that they carry, in an effort to make the decision-making process easier. However, the surprising element is that the brain doesn't take the ultimate outcome into effect, but makes only the first step easier. Because of this fact, the subconscious activity may make us worse off.

Researchers at the University College London wanted to see how people would make chain decisions, where each decision depended on the previous one. They placed volunteers in a maze where each step the person either won money or lost. During the study, they found that people generally took the routes where they avoided major losses up front, even though those routes would have won them the most money overall. The scientist pointed out that one of the easiest ways to "prune" our decisions is to phase out the decisions where the first step has a negative association. The study affirmed their hypothesis.

What's the big deal? We knew that humans, especially these days, are risk-averse. We wrote an article a while ago about how consumers are not willing to take chances by losing before they win. The negative association doesn't sit well in their decision-making. They want to start out as winners, even if the outcome will be smaller than otherwise. 

We also knew that the consumer sucks at making a decision when there are a large amount of possibilities. Malcolm Gladwell brought that up in Blink, where the consumers did a taste test with three choices and one with close to ten, and did horribly when there were more choices.

The significance of the study is that the decision-making happens in the subconscious, and that the pruning could lead to poor decisions. The example one of the scientists used revolved around vacationing. When deciding to go on vacation, a consumer may automatically rule out anything over five hours because they hate to fly.

Now the fun part: how can advertising influence the pruning of decision-making? If pruning cuts out those options that have a negative association with them, then make the advertising show that the first step is an easy one. Frame the argument in a way that the pruning in the subconscious misses it. Let's take the vacation example again. If flying is the option about to be pruned, frame the argument around the experience; have the consumer think about the type of getaway instead of the method of getting away. Consumers won't think negatively about it at first as long as they see the value in it. Researching deeper into your audience too will help level the playing field between your messaging and the subconscious. Pruning decision-making proves that the consumer may not always be right, but the right advertising can help consumers get on the right track.

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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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