4 Key Human Decision Making Biases Underpinning Modern Behavioral Science

Traditionally, marketing research relied on people’s stated attitudes and behaviors to make decisions about customers, consumers, and products, as well as marketing and advertising strategies. It treated human behavior as rational and straightforward. However, based on scientific research from Daniel Kahneman, Iris Bohnet, Richard Thaler, Catherine C. Eckel, and many others, we have learned there is a much larger world beyond personal statements.

As an interdisciplinary way of studying human behavior, behavioral science moves beyond traditional thinking by combining sociology, economics, psychology, and neuroscience to measure and understand human behavior. It provides us with far more accurate models of human behavior, models that embrace both the rational and, more notably, irrational nuances of human behavior.

Behavioral science gives us the frameworks, concepts, and tools to not only understand behavior, but also to change behavior. In particular, it’s revealed four types of decision making biases underpinning the irrationality of human behavior.

  1. The Subconscious Mind

Much of what influences human behavior is subconscious and emotional. Traditionally, marketing research focused on measuring System Two thinking, our more effortful, deliberate, reasoned thoughts.  Conventional wisdom about consumers held that people use System 2 to deliberate over the choices they make. In other words, when someone says they choose Brand A because it’s a better quality product, they really do believe they choose Brand A because it’s a better quality product.

With behavioral science, we now realize that System One thinking, our intuitive and emotional thinking, plays a huge role in determining our behaviors and attitudes. In that regard, perhaps Brand A really is a better quality product, but the real reason for the choice could be completely unrelated to quality. Perhaps they actually choose it because their mother always bought it, or because it’s the only one they can afford.

Researchers now understand that what we say and do is not always what we think and feel. We’re living in a System 1 world and our marketing research methodologies must recognize that.


  1. Context

People are greatly influenced by context. We use anchors, shortcuts, and rules of thumb about surroundings, people, places, and things to navigate through our lives and make decisions more quickly. They help us make quicker, more cognitively efficient decisions, even though those decisions are not always perfect. It’s why we:

credit card

  • Take out a credit card at a large, fully serviced grocery store and cash at a tiny, road-side hotdog stand. Even though the hotdog stand has a sign proclaiming the availability of Apple Pay and Google Wallet.
  • Are more satisfied with stores on sunny days and less satisfied on rainy days. Even though the stores are the same on both days.
  • More easily remember the cereal package design when we’re at the grocery store as opposed to when we’re at the gym.


  1. Cognitive Biases

People are subject to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cognitive biases. You need only admire this outstanding chart of cognitive biases on DesignHacks to realize how irrational people are. Every decision we make it is filtered through innumerable individual biases based on our experiences. For example:

  • Availability bias: People tend to think that examples that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. For instance, a friend’s bad experience at a store this morning will be perceived as more common than another friend’s multiple tales of good experiences told several weeks ago.
  • Status Quo Bias: People are biased to prefer the brand they’ve always bought even if buying a new brand would clearly suit their needs much better.
  • Attribute Substitution Heuristic: People substitute easier questions for more complicated questions in order to make decisions easier and faster. Thus, they might contemplate the perceptions of a brand name rather than try to understand the highly technical or chemical aspects of a product.


  1. Social Norms

Social norms are unwritten rules about how people behave. For example, people feel obliged to follow trends, or adopt socially accepted manners. People naturally tend to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority. Consequently, social norms dictate that we:

  • Wait our turn in line behind other people at the cashier rather than going ahead of people – even if we have just one item.
  • Use the fast check-out lane only when we have a few items as opposed to when we want to leave the store quickly.
  • Take only one free sample when we pass the tray in the grocery store.

So what?

Knowing that these four types of biases are subconsciously affecting everything we do means that researchers need to incorporate more than just traditional questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews into their research plans. Researchers need to identify and use methodologies that can access the non-conscious mind. That means blending behavioral, cultural, attitudinal, experimental, and statistical tools such as cultural analysis, eye tracking, EEG, GSR, facial coding, virtual reality, semiotics, social listening, and more to create well-rounded approaches. Using hybrid approaches will result in more successful product, packaging, and communications launches, and more actionable insights to grow your business.

If you’d like to learn more, dive into our learning library to find out how to use Eye Tracking,  Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), Facial Coding, or EEG tools to solve marketing research problems.

You might like to read these:

·         Heuristics and Shopper Behavior
·         What People Say Versus What People Do
·         A Behavioral Science Perspective to Queuing
·         Using Nudges to Improve In-store Communication and Drive Sales


Mike Moussallem is a partner at Explorer Research and leads the Canadian arm of the business. Moussallem has more than 15 years of experience in quantitative and qualitative research, shopper marketing, and category management. He has held positions at TNS, Kraft, PepsiCo, and Nielsen. Prior to joining Explorer, he led the Retail and Shopper Insights practice and team for TNS in Canada. Before TNS, Moussallem also led the Shopper Insights team for Kraft Canada, spanning across all sectors and customers.
Explorer Research applies behavioral science to research methods, with an emphasis on in-situation testing to help clients uncover insights related to packaging, advertising, media, customer experience, and user experience. Using an array of conscious and nonconscious research measures, including eye-tracking, facial coding, EEGs, GSR, VR, and more, Explorer Research helps their clients understand, predict and influence consumer behavior. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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