You think you make your own decisions. Yet so much of what we buy, what we eat and how we live our lives is determined by what others decide for us. A lot more than we like to believe. At least that's true if we’re not focused. With a bit of mental redirection, we can reclaim our decisions – and our lives.
In a Philadelphia theater, 158 moviegoers learned that someone else was deciding for them how much they would eat. Professors Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim designed a groundbreaking experiment in 2005, in which the moviegoers received free popcorn.
What could be better than free popcorn while watching a movie? Of course, there was a catch.
Half of the moviegoers received fresh popcorn, while the other half had the misfortune of being handed disgusting popcorn that had been sitting around for two weeks. The unfortunate half rated the taste of the stale popcorn a 2 out of 10.
So we would assume the moviegoers with the fresh popcorn ate more than the moviegoers with the disgusting popcorn. Well – no. That wouldn’t have been much of an experiment. There was another catch.
In addition to being divided by the age and taste of the popcorn, half of the moviegoers received a medium size bucket of the popcorn while the other half got a jumbo bucket.
As Stephen Duneier relates in his book, AlphaBrain (which first alerted me to this study), "If we are active participants in the decisions we make, the size of the portion should not affect how much we eat but the perceived taste should.” Or, I would add, any factors we intentionally use as the criteria for our own decision-making (such as our diet).
But that’s not what happened. Whether eating the fresh or the stale popcorn, moviegoers who were handed the jumbo bucket ate significantly more than those with the medium bucket. Those with the tasty popcorn ate 45% more if they happened to have received the jumbo bucket. And those with the disgusting popcorn, which they rated a 2 out of 10? – those holding the jumbo bucket ate over a third more.
Many subsequent studies have yielded similar results. In one study involving M&Ms, various participants received a medium portion of M&Ms in a small container to snack on while watching a TV show, while others received either the same medium portion placed in a large container or a large portion in a large container.
Those who received the larger container consumed over 130% more M&Ms. Shockingly, the container size alone, regardless of the portion size, will increase our consumption if we’re not paying attention.
And most of us are not paying attention. I know what you’re thinking. We all want to believe that we’re different. That we wouldn’t have been duped so easily had we participated in the experiment.
And yet, study after study has shown the same results, regardless of who is participating. And it’s not just about food consumption. Studies involving many other behavioral patterns, even for important life issues, have shown that how someone else frames the decision drives a fair amount of what we decide.
Even when it comes to something as significant as whether to donate your organs, others are driving the decision-making bus far more than we realize or would care to admit. Several studies have shown a marked difference in organ donation participation based on whether people signed a form with an opt-in or an opt-out provision.
When the form required people to affirmatively opt out of donating their organs, participation rates were noticeably higher than if they needed to affirmatively opt in. And just to prove it’s no coincidence, countries that have changed their forms from opt-in to opt-out have seen a big bump in citizens agreeing to donate their organs.
In other words, more often than we like to think, the decision-maker is the person choosing the size of the bucket or creating the form or designing the packaging or arranging the products on the shelf. It certainly isn’t us.
How to Stop Being Manipulated
No one likes to be manipulated, whether the manipulator’s intent is benign or not. Your ability to make your own decisions, including to decide how much to be influenced by the decisions of others, is foundational to living the life you want.
This is a vast subject and could easily cover a book rather than a blog post. The forces in every corner of your life that influence your decisions are everywhere. Escaping completely from the grip of other people’s decisions is likely not achievable.
However, if you take these steps and apply them diligently, you’ll be on your way to making many of your own decisions, and living life on your terms:
1. Always start with what you want. You’ve probably hear the famous line by Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there.” This is as true of how much popcorn you consume as it is of major life decisions.
The most important first step in reclaiming your own decision-making is to decide in advance what you want. If you go to a movie and someone hands you a free bucket of popcorn, before you take one bite, decide how much you want to eat. You may be on a diet and the answer may be zero. Whatever the amount, you will have decided how much you are going to eat, not the person who decided how big of a bucket to give you.
The same goes for bigger decisions. Decide whether or not you want to become an organ donor before you look at the form, instead of making the decision based on what is written on the form.
Before you enter the showroom, decide what kind of car you want, what color, what features, what you are willing to pay. What you purchase at the supermarket should be determined by what you’ve already decided you want to buy, not the sophistication of the packaging or where the product is placed on the shelf. You can do the same with a house purchase, a vacation or anything else.
2. Mindfulness matters. In order to start with what you want and stick to it, you need to be mindful. Mindfulness has become a faddish buzzword touted as the solution to everything. But behind the hype, taking simple steps to be mindful will keep you in the decision-making driver’s seat most of the time.
If you need to make a decision, pause. Take a breath. Remember what it is you want, and deliberately (mindfully) ask yourself whether what is in front of you will get you there. Taking the popcorn example, most people will watch the movie while mindlessly sticking their hand in the bucket. If you pause, take a breath, and then ask yourself how much popcorn you want to eat based on your diet and health goals, you’re far more likely to eat what you decide rather than what the size of the bucket decides.
As a general rule, if you feel yourself being pressured into making a decision – wait. The salesman who is telling you that this great deal might not be there tomorrow is trying to push you to buy – which is the decision he wants you to make. Give it 24 hours and then decide. You’ll almost always make a better decision, and one that is truly your own.
3. Get to know your triggers. To be mindful and stick with what you want, it’s important to know your triggers. Do you tend to reach for the most colorful packaging in the supermarket? Do you tend to eat food if it is in front of you, regardless of whether you are hungry? Do you tend to get pushed into decisions by other people?
Find your decision-making triggers and become very aware of them. Notice your tendencies as you are about to make a decision. The next time you’re in the grocery aisle and reach for a product, ask yourself whether the product is on your shopping list, or whether instead you’re attracted to the packaging, or the price seems right even if you don’t need it.