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Decision-making: Go with your gut, and you’ll be more certain about your choice, new U of T study says

“Those who focus on their feelings in decision-making come to see their choices as more consistent with what is essential, true and unwavering about themselves,” says Sam Maglio, an associate professor at U of T Scarborough (photo by Yana Kaz)

When we make a gut decision, we end up holding it with greater conviction because we see it as a more accurate reflection of our true selves, a new University of Toronto study finds.   

“Those who focus on their feelings in decision-making come to see their choices as more consistent with what is essential, true and unwavering about themselves,” says Sam Maglio, an associate professor of marketing in the department of management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

“Not only that, it also seems they are more committed to those choices.”

The research, co-authored with Taly Reich, an assistant professor of marketing at Yale University, included four experiments in which participants had to choose from a selection of items (DVD players, mugs, apartments and restaurants). In each experiment, participants were asked to make their decisions in an intuitive, gut-based way or in a deliberative, logical manner. They were then asked follow-up questions about those choices.

Maglio says that focusing on feelings in decision-making not only changes attitudes, it can also affect behaviour. One study asked participants to choose between two different restaurants – again based either on intuition or deliberation – and were then instructed to publicize their choice by emailing their decision to their friends. Those who picked a restaurant intuitively shared their choice with more people.

“Not only are those who made intuitive choices more certain, they’re also more likely to advocate for them,” says Maglio, an expert on consumer behaviour.

Past marketing and consumer behaviour research has tended to focus on what particular brands people chose and why – in other words, looking at choice as an end rather than a beginning. And while marketers are certainly interested in how consumers interact with products once purchased, what’s novel about this research is that it focuses on what happens after a choice is made by focusing on how the customer made their decision in the first place. 

“Academic interest in choice tends to end the moment choices are made, but we wanted to look at choice more as a beginning,” explains Maglio.  

For marketers or even consumers making product choices, it’s important to understand how people come to hold certain attitudes about those choices. But it’s also important to build resilience in those choices, he says. If you want consumers to stick with an exercise program or pick a box of granola bars over a chocolate cake, it’s important for people to be committed to those choices.

“The way you feel about the choices you’ve made – like seeing it as being a truer reflection of your personal identity – can have a big impact on how you interact with those choices over time,” he says.

The reason why people see intuitive choices as a more accurate reflection of their identity comes down to something called the true self, says Maglio. Essentially our feelings can arise automatically and uncontrollably in the same way that we can’t escape our true, fundamental selves.

Maglio plans on exploring some of the common experiences consumers face after making choices, particularly if those experiences are negative, like if a product or service fails to meet expectations.

“It would be interesting to see whether people try harder to defend their choice in those negative circumstances. It could be that people may be more willing to discount the negative things and grant their products greater slack if they were chosen intuitively,” he says.

The research, which is published in the journal Emotion of the American Psychological Association, received funding from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada.