My niece posted two pictures of cars on her Facebook page and asked her friends to help her decide which one to buy. Forty-four friends weighed in with their votes, but, in the end, my niece chose the car she wanted all along (which was actually already in her garage); regardless of how her friends voted. So, why go through the motions of polling when the answer was already known? Well, as it turns out, there are several factors going on in our minds when we make decisions. Beyond the workings in the brain, there is the consideration of environment, the items being compared and how much you value what you want.

Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert says the human mind evolved from different decisions than we face today. Ancestors had to weigh short-term consequences in order to survive, and this evolved into our snap-judgment process. Snap-judgments do not help with long-term decision making though; and often they can wreak havoc on our best laid plans for our future. Think of eating that donut while on a diet. Or, splurging for new shoes when trying to save for a trip. So, how can our mind work on both short-term and long-term decisions and how does this factor in to comparison shopping?

Our mind has two levels (literally, one on top of another) of decision-making processes. The lower level is our impatient, immediate-gratification, snap-judgment mind. This is called the mesolimbic dopamine reward (MDR) system of our brain and it is concerned only with the present and not future rewards. (Remember dopamine from my Valentine’s Day post on love?) The upper level, called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the patient and long-term thinking mind. The PFC can objectively view the present and the future at the same time and can see the consequences of the MDR’s immediate wants. Brain scans from various studies on decision making has shown activity in the MDR when participants were offered immediate gratification options and less activity when offered choices for the future.

Gilbert says every form of judgment works by comparison; people comparison shop. And, in a way our brain is comparison shopping by weighing its immediate wants (MDR) against its long-term needs (PFC). Gilbert points out, however, that comparisons can be manipulated and the comparisons people make while shopping are not the same comparisons made once the item is purchased. Dr. Hsee of The University of Chicago has spent years studying consumer decision-making processes. Hsee stated that, “Typically, consumers choose (buy) an item in one environment and experience (consume) the chosen item in another environment.” And when we compare items during the buying process, we often are not actually seeing the items for what they are, but only what we are comparing them against.

Gilbert conducted a study in his lab with two groups of college students. Both groups were asked to predict how much they would enjoy a bag of chips. However, one group was sitting in a room with chocolates on display while the other group’s room contained canned meats. The chocolate group predicted less enjoyment than the meat group; yet, post munching, both groups liked the chips equally. I asked Dr. Gilbert why we comparison shop when we end up with no better or clearer results and information. Gilbert said by all means we should make comparisons when shopping, but that “we also need to realize that some of the things that are so salient when we are comparing will not be salient once the alternative disappears.” In essence, the thing you choose to compare against makes a difference in how much you think you’ll like something.

According to Gilbert, there is a simple equation for decision-making: 1) what are the odds of doing a particular action getting you what you want? and 2) how much do you value getting what you want? Unfortunately, Gilbert says “this simple equation can be  screwed because humans are not easily able to estimate how likely it is to get what they want.” And because — and this part kind of jolted a spit-take reaction in me – humans are prone to irrational levels of optimism. Oh, really? Yes, says Gilbert. He points to the lottery for example where we do not see all the losers being interviewed about their loss and the amount of money they’ve spent on losing tickets. The odds are stacked highly against us to win, but we had a good feeling that day and having no negative images, we go forth optimistically. In which case, I’d say the MDR won that one. Although the PFC will have the last word with, I told you so.