Cognitive Load Has Negative After Effects on Consumer Decision Making

Authors: Siegfried Dewitte, K.U. Leuven; Mario Pandelaere, K.U. Leuven; Barbara Briers, K.U. Leuven; Luk Warlop, K.U. Leuven


Year: 2005

Focus Area: Decision Making, Time

Relevance: Fraud targets who delay their decision making in order to make  smarter choices at a later time may not be successful in that goal. People have trouble making decisions while they are occupied with another mental task, and prefer to put off a decision until a later time when they anticipate making a better decision. This work shows that delaying the decision may not improve the outcome, at least within a limited time frame.

Summary: Previous work has shown that people have trouble making decisions when they are distracted with other mental tasks (high cognitive load). This work studies the lasting effect of mental tasks on decision making after the cognitive load is removed.

  • This research found that demanding mental tasks lead to simplistic decision making both during the mental task and after the task is completed. In these experiments, consumers who had recently performed a challenging mental task relied more on easily available information, rather than actively seeking out more information.
  • Subjects’ energy levels – influenced by listening to either fast-paced or slow sequences of tones – impacted the kinds of information that subjects focused on.

Author Abstract: Concurrent cognitive load has a devastating effect on consumer decision making. Implicit in the theorizing about cognitive load seems to be that this negative effect disappears when the load is removed. Three experiments explored whether cognitive load produces after-effects and showed that various types of prior cognitive load increase the subsequent impact of easily available information on brand choice (study 1), product similarity ratings (study 2), and the quantity of food consumed in a taste test (study 3). Information availability was manipulated by means of a salience manipulation (poster display in study 1 and position of product attribute in study 2), and an accessibility manipulation (study 3).

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