Aner Sela

Why our choices don’t always define us

People say that our choices define us and reveal our true inner preferences.

That may not always be the case, according to new research authored by University of Florida Marketing Professor Aner Sela, UF Graduate Research Assistant Joshua Kim and University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Marketing Jonah Berger.

The new research suggests that self-control shapes how we define choice and how much we see our choices as reflecting our true preferences. Simply thinking of self-control makes us see our choices as less reflective of our real desires.

“We argue that self-control’s inhibitory effect on our behavior changes how we think about the relationship between our choices and our preferences: when self-control is salient in our minds, we think of our choices as less reflective of our true inner preferences,” Sela said.

Buying a car can be an important example of this. Purchasing a Toyota over a Honda can lead people to feel they like the Toyota brand more, even if the initial decision wasn’t based on strong brand preference but rather on something more random like a convenient financing option. But it turns out that merely thinking of self-control, which we do quite often, can reduce the extent to which we like and prefer what we previously chose.

The researchers started with a study that asked people in three groups to recall a choice they had made. The first group recalled a choice that involved self-control. The second group recalled an impulsive choice. The third group simply recalled a choice without special instructions. Participants were then asked to what extent the choice they had made reflected their inner preferences. The participants in the first group felt that their choice was less reflective of their preferences.

In the next study, Sela, Berger, and Kim went even further, and examined whether thinking of self-control in one context could reduce the tendency to see choice as reflecting preference in unrelated contexts. They first showed participants five mainstream sedans and asked them to choose their preferred option. Next, participants made a few unrelated choices, such as choosing food items and gifts. For half of the participants, these choices involved self-control – choosing between rich Alfredo pasta and a healthier salad, for example – while the other half made choices unrelated to self-control – choosing between an apple and a pear.

Finally, participants were asked to recall the car they had chosen and to indicate how much that choice reflected their personal preferences and taste in cars. As the researchers predicted, making self-control important in the mind of the participant by having them think about self-control in an unrelated decision reduced their feeling that the car they had previously chosen reflected their preferences.  It also reduced their evaluation of the chosen car’s brand more generally.

“Merely thinking of self-control, even in a random context, appears to evoke the notion that our choices may not be reflective of our true inner preferences,” Sela said. “This makes us see choices in even unrelated domains as less reflective of our true preferences, and may even decrease our evaluation of previously chosen brands.”

The article is forthcoming in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.