Sunday, April 2, 2017

Forming new habits. Part 5: Choice.

For part 2, 3 and 4 go here, here and here

Why do you make the choices you make?

Why do some people choose to exercise and eat healthily and others don't.

Every day you are exposed to an enormous amount of information. According to Plassman et al (2012)

"Each second we are exposed to an estimated 11 millions bits of information that reach us through our senses, yet humans are capable of processing only around 50 bits of that information."
Think about that for a second (and if you did, 11 millions bits of information were just missed by you). Your brain filters information so it doesn't get overwhelmed.

Your brain and body use autopilot, short cuts and what Daniel Kahneman calls fast thinking all the time (see part 2 for a description of this system 1). Without it you would probably be paralyzed by indecision everyday. You get up, shower, clean your teeth, get to work without much thought. These become habitual activities. When you travel somewhere new, have you noticed how much you have to concentrate, in the car you have to turn the radio off and really focus on the sat nav and the road, not the same as when you do your daily commute.

Certain decisions have been taken out of your hands from an early age. Where you were born and your parents preferences have already determined the language you speak, the foods you culturally like, the school you went to, many of the hobbies and past times you chose. You may not even be aware of other choices, you can't miss a food you've never had or are not even aware of. And that job you drifted into after school or university, it may have not been your top choice, but possibly, only years later you realize you want to do something else.

This fast system of shortcuts is useful. Going out for a coffee on your lunch break if you live in a big city could be overwhelming. If you were really to evaluate all the options you would have to go to every coffee shop, try every different type of coffee, weigh up the price and distance from your work places and then make a decision (okay, I may have actually done this). Whereas, most people will intuitively go to the same coffee shop and order the same drink.

If the choice is limited it is easier, only one coffee shop, you go there. Only one gym, you join that one. In fact, it has been shown the more choice people are given the harder they find it to make a choice. In one study, given  a choice between two different types of jam, you pick one quite easily. Given the choice of 10 or 20, then what? You are frozen with indecision over a pot of jam.

Extrapolate that to big life decisions like choosing a career or partner, the number of variables is overwhelming. This is where the shortcut, intuitive system, works best.

Dijksterhuis et al (2006, good luck pronouncing that name by the way) state that conscious thought works best when you are making simple choices like "buying towels or an oven mitt" but more complex matters like choosing a house, or car (or life partner) should be left to unconscious thought. What they call "deliberation without attention". Your unconscious mind has much bigger processing power and your conscious mind finds it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time.

When buying a car, studies have shown people make better decisions when they don't consciously think about all the variables.

Dijksterhuis et al (2006) got people to choose a car based on 4 attributes or 12 attributes (safety, mileage etc). They were given 4 minutes to think about their choice, or 4 minutes distracted by doing anagrams. The people who were distracted doing anagrams and therefore used their unconscious mind, made a much better choice when choosing a car when they had to think about 12 attributes.

We make emotionally driven choices all the time. We are not even aware we are making them.

Companies and marketers know you can be influenced, so they exploit these systems.

You are influenced by marketing even when you think you are not.

Think about all the advertising you are exposed to. Does it influence you? Of course not, you are smarter than that. Or may be not.

In a study by Bagdziunaite (2014) three group of people were shown commercials before going in to a store to buy paint.
Group 1 - random commercials
Group 2 - random commercials plus adverts for brand A paint
Group 3 - random commercials plus longer adverts for brand A paint

They were then told to go and buy some paint for redecorating.
Group 1 - 78% chose brand A
Group 2 - 94% chose brand A
Group 3 - 100% chose brand A!!

Group 2 and 3 also spent more time looking at brand A on the shelf. And guess what, 23 out of 25 participants did not perceive the link between exposure to advertising and their purchase.

And ALL of the participants who saw brand A remembered it, but reported it did not affect their choice!

Now think about the adverts you are exposed to, the filter bubble you live in, the shops you go to, the choices you make. In the supermarket, trying to make healthy choices...

Plassman et al (2012) state
"At fast decision speeds a significant number of food choices were biased towards the food items with bright packaging, even when subjects preferred the taste of alternative food options." 
In fact, given less than 1 second you will choose the most salient thing, given a second or more you will choose your preference,

Now given that most foods that are brightly packaged are processed, and if someone has been eating unhealthy for a while and has certain in built preferences, what choices do you think they are going to make?

You will choose from the menu on offer. 

There is a myth that humans will make rational economic choices. Choosing between an apple and a snickers, you choose the one that costs the least or has the most benefit for you. Except in the Western world the cost difference between these purchases is irrelevant.

The value you assign to anything is subjective. For example, chocolate or strawberry ice cream have no intrinsic value, you make a decision which one you prefer (Padoa-Schioppa, 2011). And if one is not available, it doesn't figure in your decision making process.

Or put it another way, do you want a £1000 or a glass of water? The answer is obvious unless you just came out of the desert, you're dying of thirst and someone offers you that choice. Context matters.

The orbital frontal cortex (OFC) front part of your brain has neurons that are particularly active when you prefer one option. They are not sensitive to the menu, but decide based on what is on offer.

For example, Padoa-Schioppa (2007) offered monkeys* raisins or apple slices. Monkeys prefer raisins, but eventually when the monkeys are offered 3 times as many apple slices to raisins they switch to choosing the apple. The OFC neurons then start to fire off more, as they react to one decision that is clearly better than the other.

This also happened when the monkeys had to choose between drops of water and kool aid. The monkey prefer water, until they were offer 6 times as many drops of kool aid to water, and then they switched and chose the kool aid and the OFC part of the brain was more active and helped make this decision. They even did this when they were given 2 food options they had never encountered before, they would make a choice and then switch if significant quantity of their less preferred option was given.

What does this mean for you? It means you can switch your own choices.

I read somewhere that you should crowd your diet with healthy choices. If you eat enough vegetables and whole foods, you will 'crowd out' the unhealthy options. (Sorry, I can't remember where I read this, if this is your idea, let me know, and I will credit you)!

Eventually, you brain will choose from the menu you on offer.  You can control the menu and the quantity of the menu as well.

You go to a petrol station...

How does this all work in practice. A classic way people lose track of their diet.

They have gone to a petrol station to fill up the car. This is a top down conscious decision.

But then in the shop they are confronted by chocolate bars and crisps. All brightly coloured. There are no healthy options on offer, you're hungry (you've just left the gym) and you are not carrying any healthy snacks.

Before you know it you are making a bottoms up decision, you had no intention of buying chocolate. But it's there, and the menu on offer is chocolate or more chocolate. Before you know it you are in your car eating a snickers and your diet has been derailed before you've even had time to think. The pleasure centres in your brain are firing off and you go home and wonder what happened.

Why you will be fooled by expensive wine and works of art.

The orbital frontal cortex helps you make choices. And the medial part of it (mOFC) is believed to activate more when you experience pleasantness.

In one study by Plassman et al(2008) they measured the activation of peoples brain in an fMRI scanner while they were given wine of different value, they were told the wine cost $90 or $5 o $10. Of course, there was no difference in the wines but people experienced more activation in the pleasantness areas of the brain when they thought they were drinking the more expensive wine.

The perceived price did not change the activation of the primary taste centre of the brain, but the expectation of how good it was meant to be changed the activation in the pleasantness centre of the brain.

(And as a side note: Wine experts can't even tell the difference between red and white wine when blind folded!).

In another study people valued works of art more and had more engagement in the mOFC when they thought they were painted by an expert rather than a novice. Of course, none were painted by an expert.

If I told you I painted this you'd give me £1 for it. But if I told you Jackson Pollock did, you might be willing to pay way more.

This has led to the idea of "placebo marketing".

Why do people spend £200 more on a computer because it has an apple on it? (like the one I'm typing this on).

In the world of fitness and nutrition you could use this effect to your advantage. If you spend £80 a month on a gym membership or get the platinum super duper personal training package with the best trainer in town, you may well perceive that your results will be superior to the £20 a month gym and the free programme you got given.

You may possibly work harder and just have more belief in the product.

In terms of nutrition, the super detox juice you bought for £6 a glass may seem more beneficial than the apple and bag of spinach you bought in the supermarket.

This may also explain why people see famous online coaches, posting up pictures of clients, and testimonials. You may automatically perceive this person as an expert and expect to get results when you buy their programme or online product.

Even if objectively the expensive options are no better than the cheap options.

Where does this leave us?

So you know your brain is now making decisions on autopilot all the time and whether you like it or not marketing can influence you.

Here are a few take home points relating to health and fitness

  • Make it as easy as possible for your brain to make the right decision. Reduces the cognitive load. This is why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday. Put your gym gear in your bag ready to go in the morning. I once heard someone give the advice of sleeping in your gym kit and then getting up and going, it might be going too far, but you get the idea.
  • Put the gym session or class on your schedule, it becomes an autopilot activity.
  • Not sure what to do in the gym, get a plan/programme that is not too complex and stick to it. Again it will take another decision out of your hands.
  • You will choose from the menu on offer. Fill your cupboards with healthy options, crowd out the unhealthy.
  • Be prepared when out and about. Take your own snacks with you, a box of nuts in the car may stop you buying chocolate in the garage. Also prepare your own lunches.
  • Avoid the office on cake day!
  • Trying to give up fizzy drinks/soda? Try drinking 6 glasses of water when you feel the need for a soda. (I'm serious, give it a go, but don't over hydrate).
  • You can change your preferences with regards to food, they are subjective and you can switch them.
  • Take a shopping list to the supermarket. Take your time, when tempted by bright colours and packaging. Pause, take a breath and stick to the list.
  • You may think the more expensive product is better, it may not be.
  • OR if you are a personal trainer or gym, people may perceive your product as better if you charge more and be more willing to listen to you if they perceive you as an expert. (Testimonials, qualifications etc can help with this).
  • Sometimes your brain will make the right decision without you thinking about it, especially if it is a complex decision.
  • Beware of placebo marketing and living in a filter bubble.
  • Your environment and the people you surround yourself with will influence your choices. The old adage that you are the sum of the 5 people you spend most time with is true. Expand that to environmental influences, the websites you visit, the TV shows you watch, the books you read.
  • Buy cheap wine and tell people it's expensive. They wont know any different!


Choosing paint research
Expensive wine research
Monkeys choose raisin or apple
OFC in making choices overview
Plassman et al "Branding the brain"
An Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions.
An Introduction to Consumer Neuroscience & Neuromarketing.

*Yes, I find the research involving monkeys problematic, as they don't get to choose to be part of the study. But it is what it is.

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