We all suffer from choice blindness, although we usually do not realize it. If we ask ourselves why we made certain decisions in our lives, we are likely to provide very convincing explanations. We are sure to know our motives and reasons. However, psychological experiments show that in many cases we create these reasons ad hoc and a posteriori. In other words, our knowledge about the reasons that push us to make one decision and not another is not as solid or rational as we think.
What is choice blindness?
The concept of choice blindness, as this phenomenon is known, refers to a bias that prevents us from recognizing that on many occasions we are not fully aware of the reasons that lead us to make certain decisions. However, the mere fact of thinking that we made those decisions “forces” us to look for arguments to defend them. In practice, we suffer from an illusion of introspection that leads us to think that we know very well the origins of our emotions, thoughts, decisions and behaviors, when we don’t.
The surprising experiments that expose our choice blindness
In 2008, Petter Johansson and Lars Hall conducted a curious experiment. They recruited 20 young people, who were shown a pair of female faces, like the ones below, to choose the one that seemed most attractive to them.
Then the psychologists did a trick and changed the choice of the participants, asking them to explain why they had chosen that face. Amazingly, less than 30% of the subjects noticed that they had changed the image. In fact, in a later memory task, they used to remember the manipulated choice as their own.
That means that, even if we have visual preferences, our brain is not always able to remember them. “We are often unaware of the changes taking place in the world, even if they have consequences for our own actions,” the researchers noted.
Two years later a group of psychologists from Lund University continued this experiment on choice blindness. In this case they were not limited to the visual world, but extended it to taste and smell. The psychologists pretended to be independent consultants who wanted to assess the quality of a store’s jam and tea assortment and asked 180 people to help them.
They asked the participants to focus on the taste of the jam and the smell of the tea so that they could choose their preferred product from different samples. For example, one participant was asked to choose between a ginger and lime jam, or a cinnamon and apple versus a grapefruit one.
After tasting the jam in the jars or smelling the tea, people had to indicate how much they liked it on a scale of 1 to 10. Immediately after the choice, the psychologists asked the people to try the chosen option again and verbally explain their decision. The secret is that they had exchanged the products.
Again, less than a third of the participants realized that their choice were manipulated and even gave reasons to support their supposed choice. That means that the vast majority did not notice any difference between their choice and that of the researchers, even among those that were very different, such as the taste of a cinnamon apple jam and a bitter grapefruit jam.
However, the most curious thing is that we are not aware of how fallible our perceptions are. In that study, people were convinced that it was extremely easy to distinguish between both types of jam and teas. And they even insisted that they would always be able to tell them apart. Obviously, it was not.
We are all blind to our choice blindness
As a general rule, the more important a decision is to us, the more likely we are to pay attention to the different factors involved and the more difficult it is to be fooled. However, the message behind the phenomenon of choice blindness is clear: we should not rely too much on our capacity for introspection because it plays tricks on us.
This false security, for example, can lead us to invent reasons to support decisions that may have been correct at the time, but have lost their sense. It can also cause us to give undue importance to those reasons, thinking that they were the ones that led us to make a decision when in fact we built them to support it afterwards.
It can even make us assume as our own decisions those we make pushed by others. So we end up supporting other people’s decisions and letting them guide our lives, just because we trust too much in our level of self-knowledge to recognize that we can be victims of choice blindness.
On the other hand, being aware of choice blindness will allow us to be more flexible in our evaluations to change course when necessary, avoiding falling into rationalization mechanisms that bind us to decisions that perhaps are not even ours.
Hall, L. et. Al. (2010) Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition; 117(1):54-61.
Johansson, P. & Hall, L. (2008) From change blindness to choice blindness. PSYCHOLOGIA; 51(2):1 42-155.