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We’re More Likely to Stick to Decisions Rooted in Emotions

Should you trust your gut? A new study co-authored by Yale SOM’s Taly Reich finds that decisions made on the basis of feelings hold up longer in the face of new information than decisions made deliberately and rationally.

By Dylan Walsh

In early April, the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper of Northwestern University, published an article about high school seniors making their college decisions in the middle of a pandemic. No campus tours. No in-person interviews with current students or visits to the classroom or opportunities to evaluate the relative plushness of dining halls and dorm rooms.

One senior from Plantation, Florida, instead poked around online. She found a Facebook group of admitted students and liked their “spirit and camaraderie.” Left with a good feeling, she decided Northwestern was the right fit. “Maybe it was meant to be,” she said.

Maybe. But how will that gut feeling hold up over a four-year college career? Will this Floridian graduate from Northwestern, or will she eventually start to regret the choice that she made and look to transfer?

A new study co-authored by Yale SOM’s Taly Reich and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto may help to answer that question. The study seeks to understand how the way we make decisions affects whether we change our minds over time.

Read the study: “Choice Protection for Feeling-Focused Decisions”

“A lot of literature focuses on how you arrive at a decision and what effect that has on the decision you make,” says Reich. Do people make better decisions when they make them deliberatively and rationally or when their decisions are rooted in emotion? Reich and Maglio’s study tackles this realm of inquiry from the other side of the timeline. “The unique thing about our paper is that we instead look at the post-choice phase: sure, we make a choice, but then we’re exposed to all this new information, to other options that can threaten the choice we made. How do we protect our choices in the face of that?”

In short, Reich and Maglio examine the relationship between the way in which people make a choice—whether they make it rationally or emotionally—and how stubborn they are in defense of that choice.

In a lab experiment, those who chose a digital camera based on a gut feeling experienced less regret when told they’d made a bad choice—and more readily dismissed the competence of negative reviews.

The researchers used seven experiments to explore that relationship, and in every case they found that people are more protective of a choice when it is made based on feelings. In one experiment that explores regret, participants were asked to choose one of three digital cameras based on several distinguishing technical characteristics. One group was asked to use their “intuitive gut feeling,” the other group “deliberate, rational analysis.” Participants were then randomly assigned to a scenario in which the day after their hypothetical purchase they read a consumer report that either boasts about or denigrates the quality of the camera they chose. Those who chose a camera based on their feelings experienced less regret when told they’d made a bad choice. (This group also more readily dismissed the competence of negative reviewers.)

Another experiment demonstrated greater perseverance among people who tried to solve visual puzzles with their gut instinct. To test this, Reich and Maglio showed eight related patterns and asked participants to select the ninth in the sequence from a set of options; in this case, however, the correct answer had been removed. One group was asked to select their best guess based on what they felt was right, and the other based on deliberative analysis. Those who selected an answer based on feelings were more likely retry the puzzle even though they had gotten the wrong answer the first time.

“What we document is a basic effect where deciding based on feelings seems to offer people more choice protection,” Reich says. Several interesting implications flow from this result. For marketers, eliciting decisions that are based on feelings rather than rationality could secure a stronger allegiance among consumers. This could be achieved through a range of subtle tactics, like using visuals instead of words, or colors instead of gray-scale.

For consumers, the study suggests that choices that require steadfast commitment should perhaps be made with emotion rather than deliberation. Consider someone trying to decide on which exercise regimen is best. Rather than weighing pros and cons, perhaps they should simply follow their gut in order to encourage themselves to make a long-term commitment. On the other hand, choices that are dynamic, requiring frequent reconsideration and an openness to revision, should be made rationally.

“People need to know that the way in which they arrive at a decision has these consequences for how they actually live with the decision,” Reich says. “If we face choices that are very important to us, that we want to protect, then we should probably go with our gut rather than deliberate.”

Department: Research