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How marketing can help with our irrationality

January 29, 2014

If you don’t think we’re irrational, you’ve never watched Dan Ariely. The good news – you can watch his TED Talk.

I’ll wait.

If you insist on reading on, then lets highlight the best part. He takes us through the illusions of our decision making process. First though, he showed us some famous visual illusions. Here is one of them.

In this image, you’re asked what color the two blocks are. When we look at this image, we’re sure that one is brown and one is yellow. Turns out though, if you take away the background of the blocks, they are the same color.

Once people learn the illusion, they still can’t tell it’s there. Seriously, go back and look at the first picture. Even though we ‘know’ the colors are both brown, our brains won’t let us see it. Indeed, some of you might even be thinking this is a trick.

They are both the same color, we’re told they are the same color, and we still can’t see that they aren’t.

Dan wonders if our brain can be easily tricked by color, what about our irrationality? Can we be easily tricked in other ways?

The Paradox of Choice.

There is a great book called the Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less that explains how too many choices can lead us to be irrational. We’re not hardwired to make a choice when faced with more than 7 options.

In a classic experiment described in “Choice”, one of my favorite Radio Lab episodes, they describe an experiment called “The Magic Number Seven.”

In the experiment, people are asked to remember either a two or seven digit number. Then they are told to go to a another room to to relay the number. As they walk down the hall, they are interrupted by a woman who offers them a “Thank you for participating snack”. The choices are a healthy bowl of fruit, or a piece of chocolate cake.

The results are bizarre to say the least:  the people who memorized a two-digit number almost always picked the fruit. The people with a seven-digit number almost always picked the cake.


The rational part of the brain is in constant competition with the emotional side of the brain. Emotional side wants cake. The rational side knows that fruit is better for them. However, when the rational side is given seven numbers to remember, it can’t compete with the emotional side of the brain.

The more information the rational side has, the more emotional a decision a person will make.

Listen here.

So what are the implications of all this?

Design matters – when we place a communication in front of people, we are often offering a choice. In the case of higher ed, the choice is a considered one, with many, many, many variables. On the one hand, too many choices make people walk away. On the other hand, many choices make people less rationale (ever notice how many options come on a car?)

If the choice isn’t clear, people might simply walk away. If the choice has just enough options, rationality will leave the building and emotion could take over. Remember that when you’re designing and/or writing a communication, or when you’re buying a car.

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