Choice Blindness in Psychology

woman's hand reaching for a tomato at a market
People often fail to notice when what they get doesn't match what they chose. Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images

The concept of choice blindness suggests that people are not always aware of their choices and preferences. Choice blindness is a part of a cognitive phenomenon known as the introspection illusion. Essentially, people incorrectly believe that they fully understand the roots of their emotions and thoughts, yet believe that other people's introspections are largely unreliable.

According to research on this topic, even when you don't get what you want, there's a strong chance that you won't even notice. And you may even defend a choice just because you think it's the one you made.

For example, let's say you've been asked to taste two different types of jams and choose your favorite. You are then offered another taste of the one you selected as your favorite and asked to explain why you chose it. Do you think that you would notice if the jam that you had initially rejected was presented to you as your "favorite"?

What the Research Says

In a pioneering study on the concept of choice blindness, researchers Johansson, Hall, Sikstrom, and Olsson examined how people often overlook differences between their intentions and outcomes. The study involved having participants look at images of two different female faces for between two to five seconds. The participants then rated which face they found the most attractive. 

The researchers then changed the photo that the participants thought they had chosen to that of an entirely different woman, and the participants were asked to describe why they found the woman attractive. 

Surprisingly, only 13% of the participants noticed the switch. In fact, many went on to describe the reasons why they found the face attractive, even though it was not the woman that they had chosen at all.

Further research demonstrated how these effects could influence other types of choices. In 2010 social scientists Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and their colleagues presented just such a scenario to supermarket volunteers, They found that fewer than 20% of participants noticed that they tasted the jam they had turned down just a few moments earlier. In many cases, the difference between the two flavors differed dramatically, ranging from spicy to sweet to bitter.

In other cases, people ended up tasting the exact same jam twice. Yet when asked, people would then explain how the two tastes were different.

Such findings demonstrate that people don't always understand the inner workings of their own minds and are frequently blind to the factors that influence their choices.

How Choice Blindness Influence Decisions

Researchers have demonstrated how choice blindness impacts visual, taste, and smell preferences, but is it possible that it might have an influence on more important choices?

In a 2013 study by Hall and colleagues, researchers investigated how choice blindness might influence political attitudes. During a Swedish general election, participants were asked to state who they planned to vote for and were then asked to select their opinion for each of a number of wedge issues. Then using sleight of hand, the researchers altered their replies so that they were actually on the opposing political point of view. Participants were then asked to justify their responses on the altered issues.

Consistent with earlier research on choice blindness, only 22% of the manipulated responses were detected and more than 90% of the participants accepted and then endorsed at least one altered response.

These results suggest that our political attitudes may be more open to change than we may realize.

Causes

How do the experts define choice blindness? According to Johansson and Hall, we frequently fail to notice when we are presented with something different from what we really want, and, we will come up with reasons to defend this "choice."

So why do so many people fail to notice these switches? Are we less aware of our preferences than we think we are?

Interest in the choice at hand is one factor that might play a role. When an issue is more important to us, we might be likely to notice mismatches between what we choose and what we actually get.

Real-World Implications

Choice blindness can have important ramifications in the real world. The ability to recognize faces plays a major role in our everyday lives. While we might think that we are good at recognizing a face that we had previously selected, the reality is that we are actually quite poor at detecting switches.

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