Overthinking can make easy buying decisions hard

Consumers might say they like easy buying decisions, but they don't.

In fact, when an important decision seems too easy, and one choice is clearly superior, consumers will continue deliberating.

They will focus on small shortcomings of the best choice, needlessly complicating their decision, potentially losing out on fleeting opportunities and possibly affecting future decisions, all because the best choice seemed too quick and easy.

Those are the findings of an academic study of consumer behavior, a relatively new area of investigation in academia that is producing fascinating findings and insights into the mind of the modern consumer.

Other recent studies showed how dieters can be tricked by names of food, explained why some consumers believe 36 months is longer than three years and explored Americans' fascination with debt. Perhaps you'll recognize your own buying blunders among study findings. Here are a few from the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research and elsewhere.

EASY CHOICES MADE HARD: Consumers needlessly complicate important and life-changing decisions because they want to complete their due diligence.

It stems from a Protestant work ethic and the notion that life isn't easy; that good things happen only when you work hard for them, according to a study by Rom Y. Schrift, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia Business School professors Oded Netzer and Ran Kivetz.

"We feel like we want to investigate more and learn more before making such a decision," Netzer said. "We have a need for deliberation."

Consumers want the amount of effort they exert in a big decision to match the amount of effort they had anticipated exerting.

If there's a mismatch — the decision seems too obvious or easy — consumers will artificially make easy decisions harder.

How? They start nit-picking at attributes of the right choice and focus on good attributes of the wrong choice.

Netzer gives the example of choosing an apartment, in which an apartment hunter considers cost and size of the unit important and having a doorman less so. What happens when a large apartment for a low monthly rent is found immediately? Instead of being happy that he quickly found an ideal apartment, he starts thinking about a competing apartment that is smaller and pricier but has a doorman. Suddenly, having a doorman rises in importance, and he has successfully made a quick-and-easy decision more difficult, Netzer said.

"They tend to take the unimportant attribute and inflate it," he said.

The good news is that even though people continue deliberating decisions that come too easily, they seldom end up choosing the worse alternative. They just exert needless effort considering it, the study found. And this only happens for big, life-changing decisions.

"If the decision is unimportant, the effect goes away," Netzer said. The effect is more intense for people who believe hard work is the only way to get good results.

The bad news for consumers is that some choices are fleeting. Wasted time and deliberation run the risk of losing an opportunity. Think about dating or home-buying in a brisk market.

"Due diligence can be costly, especially if it's a fake due diligence," Netzer said.

SALAD DAZE: Dieters are so fixated on trying to eat virtuously that they are more likely than nondieters to be tricked into buying unhealthy foods that have healthy-sounding names, according to research by Caglar Irmak and Stefanie Robinson of the University of South Carolina and Beth Vallen of Loyola University Maryland. Restaurant salads can include meats, cheeses, breads and pasta. Potato chips can be labeled "veggie chips," milkshakes are called "smoothies," and sugary drinks are dubbed "flavored water."

"Over time, dieters learn to focus on simply avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on product name," the authors said in a statement.

In an experiment, dieters ate more samples called "fruit chews," rather than "candy chews," even though the samples were identical.

INNUMERACY: Some of the more fascinating studies are ones that show marketers how to trick consumers with numbers and prices. The obvious example is pricing an item at $2.99 to make it seem like $2, rather than $3.

A new study shows how consumers pay attention to differences in numbers when comparing two choices, sometimes without regard to units, according to a study whose lead researcher was Mario Pandelaere, of Belgium's Ghent University. So they would consider 36 months to be greater than three years, something the authors call the "unit effect."

In an experiment, participants were offered a choice between an apple and a Twix candy bar. The energy content, called calories in the U.S., of the choices was either expressed in kilojoules (247 for the apple versus 1,029 for the Twix) or kilocalories (59 for the apple versus 246 for the Twix).

Participants more often chose the apple when the units were expressed in kilojoules, because the difference of 782 seemed larger than the difference in kilocalories, 187, making the Twix bar seem a far worse dietary choice.

LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF DEBT: One of the reasons Americans have so much debt is that they believe debt has become normal and necessary, according to a new study.

"How did America, a country once so indelibly marked with Puritan principles of self-discipline and thrift, become a nation so awash in personal debt?" ask the study's authors, Lisa Penaloza, of EDHEC in France, and Michelle Barnhart, of Oregon State University.

Debt has become so normal that a consumer without a credit history has trouble buying cellphone service or renting a car. "Taking on debt is the American way," one study participant said.

A different study found that credit card debt and student loans don't make young adults anxious about their finances. Instead, debt boosts self-esteem for young adults and makes them feel more in control, according to research by assistant professor Rachel Dwyer, at Ohio State University.

Gregory Karp, the author of "Living Rich by Spending Smart," writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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