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When Consumers Copy Choice
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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Consumers are not the best at making decisions. In an environment where we are bombarded with so many options, paired with even more irrelevant information and variables that affect judgment, it is easy to see why consumers have a difficult time. And when consumers are placed in situations where they have very little information, or no social proof on which to base a decision, they tend to act irrationally.

A latest report in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms this suggestion. The study covered what is called the "social default effect," when consumer choose an option not based on their own preferences, but on what people around them choose. The study placed out two different types of Korean tea brands and asked the participants to choose a brand. These non-Korean speakers or writers had to choose without knowing what the product packaging said. Right before they chose, though, another non-Korean person went in front of them, picked one, and walked away. 

What happened? Exactly what the study anticipated — the participants chose the brand the person before them picked.

This method is nothing new. Restaurants have added the option of "popular choices" so if consumers really don't know what to have, their options have been limited for them. Dr. Ariely studied this phenomenon as well. They sent a person to choose between two restaurants; one of them was known to be better than the other, but the consumer was without that information. Before that consumer could make a choice, two consumers went in front of them and sat down at the lesser restaurant. The result? The participant also chose the lesser one.

Now here's the rub with defaults, and why it is important to be first. Once a default is chosen, it is extremely difficult to modify future behavior. If the first experience is good, then the default remains. If the first experience is poor, then the consumer will try everything except that first place because of the negative association.

Just because you have a great product doesn't mean it will win out. The consumer has to find it.

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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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