Desire for choice varies by time of day

Imagine you are in the supermarket shopping for yogurt. How many different flavours do buy?  According to some new research your answer may very well depend on what time of day you make the decision.

The role of choice in our lives

The role of choice in our lives is a perplexing one. As consumers we want enough choice without it overwhelming us. As businesses, we want enough choice to attract customers without carrying too much inventory.

When it comes to choice, past research has found people seek:

  • More variety in a product category when consumption will take place at a future time (Diversification Bias by Read & Loewenstein 1995 PDF). If I have to choose three chocolate bars to eat over the next three weeks, for example, I will likely opt for a broader variety than if I was to choose one chocolate each week, in the moment.
  • More virtuous options for future rather than immediate consumption. The movie I select to watch next week, for example, will be more highbrow than the movie I choose to watch it tonight (Read, Loewenstein & Kalyanaraman 1999 PDF).
  • A larger choice-set when the decision is proximal. I will tend to prefer a restaurant with fourteen items on its menu than seven for dinner tonight, but won’t care if the booking is for dinner in 5 months time (Goodman & Malkoc 2012 PDF)

How desire for choice varies by time of day

In their forthcoming paper, researchers Gullo, Berger, Etkin and Bollinger (2018) dived into how the desire for choice varies over the course of a day. They were curious about whether a purchase decision could be different depending on whether it was made in the morning or afternoon.

Hypothesising that changes in circadian rhythms would impact levels of arousal, and therefore decision-making, the researchers analysed the supermarket shopping decisions of over one million American households over 25 months. Using a rewards card to track each household, the researchers found people sought more variety in the afternoon and evening compared with the morning.

In short, in the morning you may choose two flavours of yogurt, but later in the day you are likely to choose four.

Why? In the morning people are less typically aroused, and therefore seek less stimulation. Less stimulation in a retail sense means they seek less variety.

What this means for you

This research is an important illustration of how physiological arousal impacts decision-making. Some of the business implications noted by the research team include:

  • Consumers may be less inclined to try new products in the morning and voters may be more prone to vote for incumbents if they vote in the morning
  • Ads that appeal to variety seeking might be more effective in the afternoon or evening than in the morning
  • Ads could emphasise different benefits in the morning than evening. For example, a car company could talk about its range when advertising at night, but focus on a particular car or feature in the morning
  • Restaurants could downplay variety on their breakfast menus but highlight variety in their lunch and dinner menus.
  • Radio stations might want to play less varied music in the morning and more varied music in the evenings.

But…I’m not sure.

Broader context

What attracted me to this latest research was the connection between how we decide and how we feel. Not how we ‘feel’ emotionally, but how our body is making us feel – measured by markers like body temperature and circadian cycles.  Rationally, if our intellectual self was in charge like economists assume, I should make the same decision at 10am that would at 2pm, whether it’s Monday or Friday. But you and I know that’s not how things work, right?

In an oft-cited study by Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso (2011), mental fatigue has been shown to impact high-stakes courtroom decisions. When fresh, at the start of the day or after a break, judges granted parole 65% of the time. When depleted, at the end of a long day or session, odds dipped below 10%.

The broader take away from the judges-study is that when tired we tend to defer to the status quo (leave things as they are). We are more open to change when our brain is refreshed.

In the case of the yogurt, that would see us trialling more varieties when we are fresh (in the morning before we’ve had to make a lot of decisions) than tired (later in the day).

So how to square this with the latest variety-seeking research that says people want narrow their options in the morning, when their circadian rhythms signal they want less stimulation?

To me there’s a piece here about perception of effort that I haven’t yet seen explained. Here’s my thinking on how to pull the research together.

In the morning, when arousal is typically lower but we are less mentally depleted, people perceive choosing variety as more effortful. That doesn’t mean making a decision is more effortful, it means we naturally prefer to focus rather than broaden.

  • In my view that may not necessarily mean people are less likely to trial a new product, but you would be best not to offer them lots to choose from
  • Likewise, voters may opt for the incumbent rather than choosing from a large array, so your role would be to clarify rather than expand options
  • If you are dealing with a customer, that means having a more pointed, focussed decision-making discussion rather than one that is more abstract.

Later in the day, when arousal is higher but we may be more depleted, people perceive having to narrow their options as more effortful. That means they want a broader, options-oriented discussion. The risk, if you force them to narrow, is they will opt to leave things as they are rather than have to discard options they haven’t yet fully considered.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s