Choosing an Inferior Alternative

Authors: J. Edward Russo, Cornell University; Kurt A. Carlson, Duke University; Margaret G. Meloy, The Pennsylvania State University

Publication: Psychological Science

Year: 2006

Focus Area: Persuasion, Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: People may become involved in scams that they would not rationally choose to participate in. The ways in which fraudsters present information to their victims may be important in explaining why people agree to scams that, when examined rationally, are not good choices.

Summary: This experiment shows that people can be manipulated to make irrational decisions simply by the order in which information about their options is presented. In this case, people were manipulated to choose a restaurant that they had previously rated as undesirable.

  • The first part of the experiment was a control test, in which participants chose between two restaurants that were presented evenly. Less than half (41%) of the subjects chose the inferior restaurant, as expected.
  • A second part of the experiment, conducted two weeks later with the same subjects, attempted to increase the number of people choosing the inferior restaurant by manipulating the order in which subjects learned information about the restaurant.
  • The share of the group that chose the inferior restaurant increased from 41% to 62% between the two sessions. Furthermore, the participants were equally confident of their decision in the second session as the first and were unaware that they had been manipulated at all.

Author Abstract: We show how decision makers can be induced to choose a personally inferior alternative, a strong violation of rational decision making. First, the inferior alternative is installed as the leading option by starting with information that supports this alternative. Then, the decision maker uses the natural process of distorting new information to support whichever alternative is leading. This leader-supporting distortion overcomes the inherent advantages of the superior alternative. The end result is a tendency to choose the self-identified inferior alternative. We trace the choice process to reveal the amount of distortion and its influence on preference. Self-reported awareness of distortion to support the inferior alternative is not related to the amount of distortion. The absence of valid awareness suggests that the manipulation that produces this preference violation is unlikely to be detected and that the distortion is unlikely to be corrected by the decision maker. As expected, given the lack of awareness, final confidence is just as high when the inferior alternative is chosen as when the superior one is. The discussion considers how to prevent an adversary from manipulating one’s decisions using this technique.

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