The typical every day purchase decision is made in seconds. As we stare at a shelf, we may think we’re sizing up ingredients and price, but our mind is doing so much more. It’s having a conversation with itself about a lifetime of facts, emotions and memories you have collected that pertain to the item at hand. Kind of amazing isn’t it? This is how your brain uses mental shortcuts to help you make a decision.
Brain Shortcuts at Work
Here’s an example. I hated oatmeal, but knew it was good for my cholesterol, and would fill me until lunch. I’m weight conscious and need to fight the snacking urge. As I’m staring at the shelf, all sorts of things started running through my mind while I put brands and types in buckets – to possibly buy or yuck! Mom used to buy Cream of Wheat – runny, pale, and flavorless; so childhood memories placed oatmeal firmly in the yuck category. Sweet cereal is horrible – so out with the flavored oatmeal packets that would make me feel like I was eating dessert. I like textures (slimy eggplant and okra are on the bottom of my food list) and prefer chunky cereals. Chunky means robust, hearty, and filling to me. Steel cut oatmeal caught my eye. Organic oatmeal caught my eye because I need to be health conscious and so many people are getting cancer these days. Steel cut, organic oatmeal was more expensive, but if I ate it, I’d be fit and feel good about myself. Plus I’d make Mom happy – years later. All this in a few seconds. And who knows what was going on beneath this!
It’s Not Just About Oatmeal?
So oatmeal was about staying slim, avoiding disease, textures, and Mom. Who knew?! Part of my decision was logical, and part was entirely emotional based on childhood and advertising. These brain discussions are called Somatic Markers. They’re short cuts to help us make decisions that will likely fit with who we are and what we believe in.
But beware. If your decisions are based on emotion, memories, and the facts you have at hand, sometimes you may be missing out, or making a bad decision due to incomplete information. You may have old family memories about a favorite TV brand but now it’s far less reliable. When making larger purchases, consider having a friend or two provide input to help round out your knowledge and assumptions.
Carrie Rattle is a Principal at BehavioralCents.com, a web site for women focused on the psychology of money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Thoughts always welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.