Ignorance is bliss: why happiness has nothing to do with knowledge

  • Decoder
  • March 18, 2013
  • Andrew Lewis
Ignorance is bliss: why happiness has nothing to do with knowledge

We often find ourselves sitting with clients behind the strange two-way mirrors at focus group facilities, peering from a darkened room like teenage voyeurs at a bunch of consumers (“middle New Zealand”) who are grappling to understand some new product concept we’ve put in front of them.

Inevitably, a client will comment, often quite rightly, that the consumers aren’t “getting it”; that they’ve glossed over key elements of their new product or service, misinterpreted a key benefit or are simply not “stepping up to the plate” mentally.

Consumers, it would seem on observation, just want to eat their free pizza and make the easiest decision they can. Which raises a really interesting point about how people must consume products and services in the real world. The things they’ve actually paid money for. Do they behave in the same way? Do they know what they’ve bought? Do they care to any large degree about their choice? And what we see, across countless instances is that often people don’t really understand the things they buy and don’t want to contemplate whether they have bought ‘the best for them’. 

Critically, it’s this very absence of information and critical processing that often gives them happiness. Take for instance a recent project we conducted for a services client. One in five of their customers, on this very distinctive product they offered, had no idea they were on it. And beyond this, a further three quarters didn’t understand most of the core benefits of the product, how it really worked or what it was costing them.

But, critically, this lack of knowledge didn’t stop them being happy: 96 percent were positive about the product they were on, despite as few as one in four truly understanding it.

Indeed, when we started to dig into this, what became clear was that this low understanding customers held was a deliberate strategy. They had made a decision to not find out too much about this product; to not evaluate it too carefully in the purchase process. Someone had made them an offer; it sounded okay; so they bought it, knowing they wouldn’t have to think about this aspect of their lives again for some time.

We see this in other categories too. Buying a new car? Most people rule out all but three before they start really reviewing information on any. Taking out insurance? A third of people only approach one provider before making a decision. Buying bacon? Nine out of ten will just pick up whatever is on special, despite a proliferation of 174 product SKUs.

But perhaps what’s most fascinating of all about this low-engagement decision-making was what happened when we tried to give people more information on what they’re buying to help them make ‘better decisions’: it made them angry. In the services product example, forcing more conscious decision-making agitated people, it made them start to doubt the decision they’d made and it increased their risk of churn, despite the fact that many benefits were revealed in this process. Put simply, placing a decision someone wants to be simple under too much of a spotlight creates unwanted dissonance.

So why do people want to make poorly evaluated decisions? Why are they constantly seeking shortcuts, even when we’re talking about spending $70,000 on a new car? Part of this is about how our brain works making decisions. As Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking Fast and Slow, we can process “slowly” using our rational brain, or we can process “quickly” using our emotive brain. The slow system tires easily and, given the amount of potential decisions we face in a day, can’t bear the burden for all the choices we make.

But part of it is about the sheer volume of information we now face daily. The average person will be exposed to around 174 newspapers worth of data a day, roughly 64 gigabytes. A big number, but what’s fascinating is that it’s more than five times higher than the amount they would have received in 1986. 

Not only are we exposed to more information, we are much more active in the process of creating it ourselves. We now produce six newspapers worth of data every day—largely through social media, email and photography—and that’s 200 times what we would have produced in ’86.

So what possible endgame can there be for consumer decision-making other than a massive increase in ‘fast’ system usage? On paper, we should expect consumers to be showing less care across a wider range of decisions as they struggle to stay on top of the information burden. And this has some massive implications for how we sell ideas and products to people in the future. Indeed, if they can’t sit eating pizza and be persuaded by a simple thought or impression, then there is probably nothing else to “get”.

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency.
  • This article originally appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing. 

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