The Internet raises some interesting issues with regard to how it enables us to satisfy some of our most basic human needs in ways that were impossible before it came along. Three such changes are discussed in Chapter 13 (“When Consumers’ Brains Go Online”):
How we search for information
Just about everything we do online involves acquiring, evaluating, or comparing information with an ease that was unthinkable a few years ago. In the online world, passive consumption of information has been replaced by active search. The old aggregators are becoming endangered species as newspaper and magazine subscriptions decline and traditional evening news viewership shrinks. Search engines like Google and Bing put limitless information at people’s disposal. This is changing not just the amount of information available, but the way in which people interact with that information.
Search, like most other online tasks, is active and goal driven. Researchers have found that people approach searching for information online in a manner very similar to how animals forage for food in the wild. They no longer rely on trusted information sources. Every website they encounter is a potential information patch that they rapidly evaluate for the quality and amount of information it offers relative to their goals. As people become more expert at this foraging behavior, many of the clues and cues they use to make their evaluations become automatic and nonconscious.
Both website design and online advertising effectiveness depend on identifying and understanding how this new process of information foraging operates in practice. It’s very different from the passive information gathering techniques consumers used in the pre-Internet era. Explicit intentions and consciously pursued tasks are central to information foraging, but nonconscious processes that occur rapidly and automatically play a key role as well, making this a research area ready-made for an integrated blend of traditional and neuromarketing techniques.
How we share
Neuroscientists have recently learned something that should be unsurprising to dedicated Facebook users: Talking about ourselves to others is intrinsically rewarding. It activates the same reward circuitry in our brains as eating, receiving money, and having sex. Social-networking sites have tapped into this deep propensity in human nature, giving each of us a virtual soapbox to share our most intimate thoughts with hundreds, if not millions, of people.
The impact of all this sharing on marketing and advertising is to make the processes of persuasion and choice much more complicated. As the number of choices we face every day multiplies, and as our ability to access the preferences of our trusted peers online becomes easier, the messages we receive from advertisers and marketers become less relevant to how we decide. Some commentators have gone so far as to speculate that choice in the social-networking world of the future will become more mimicry than decision making.
Copying the behavior or decisions of others is a strategy that appeals to our cognitive miser brains. Whether we copy the preferences of known friends or people in general, the net effect will be a less predictable world, in which what is popular is popular because it is popular, not because of its intrinsic qualities, brand reputation, or unique selling proposition. At a minimum, this is a world in which the power of brand loyalty may be weakened by the power of social conformity.
How we buy
Pick just about any product in any category, and the Internet offers not only the opportunity to immediately buy that product, but a limitless array of offers to choose from, plus interactive tools to compare any offer with any other.
A simple search for toaster ovens, for example, yields over 6,000 results, with options to sort and compare by availability, price, brand, cooking method, size, features, and retail store. In addition, the results page helpfully suggests several related product categories to consider, including toasters, microwave ovens, sandwich makers, waffle irons, and drip coffee makers. Given this overabundance of choice available at our fingertips, the question naturally arises: How does limitless choice impact our human capacity to make decisions?
Social psychologists and decision scientists have begun looking at this question, and the results show that excessive choice can have several implications for consumer decision making:
- Decision avoidance: When confronted with too much choice, consumers often choose not to choose.
- Reliance on habits: Habitual buying gives shoppers a way to avoid complex choices by relying on selections that have worked in the past.
- Reliance on others: People become more dependent on the opinions of others when they can’t disentangle complex choices on their own.
- Decreased self-control: When consumers do make complex choices, the process is mentally exhausting, often resulting in willpower depletion (see Chapter 7, “New Understandings of Consumer Goals and Motivation”) less self-control, and greater impulsiveness.
- Greater dependence on heuristics: In a state of willpower depletion, consumers are more likely to rely on heuristics that bypass rational System 2 decision-making capabilities (see Chapter 8, “Why We Buy the Things We Buy”).
In summary, limitless online choice places significant burdens on our human decision-making abilities. Faced with too much choice, we tend to avoid choice altogether, or revert to implicit System 1 decision making. This is a challenging situation, but one that gives website designers an opportunity to develop decision support tools that simplify complex choice and return choice control to consumers. Indeed, this is an area where neuromarketers and website designers can combine forces to provide real value to online shoppers, as well as online retailers, marketers, and advertisers.
The long-term implications of these radical changes are as yet unknown.