(Originally published in Slovak at mindworx.net)
Most of us probably believe that we are in control of our own decisions. We have our opinions, beliefs and principles, we know what we like and dislike and we always decide in accordance with our preferences.
However, this is not entirely true. Our brain reacts to all kinds of cues from the external environment and so our behaviour and decision making depend heavily on these. Even if we do not realise it.
Since there are a lot of these external cues, it is useful to categorise them to be able to analyse them better. One of the possible models is the “MINDSPACE” framework, created a few years ago in the UK by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government. Obviously, such models do not include all the possible factors that influence our behaviour, but do describe the most important ones. Thus, it serves as a good basis for a better understanding of human decision making.
The name MINDSPACE is an acronym made of the first letters of the main motivators of human behaviour. These are Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitments and Ego. Let’s now have a look at each of them.
It is true that how we perceive information depends on their source. Different researchers have shown that we are more likely to listen to what the experts say, but also to accept advice from people similar to us in some ways. On the other hand, if we get advice from someone we dislike, it is probable we will not take it into account no matter how good it is.
They include everything that motivates us – either physical motivators (such as money or other non-financial rewards) or psychological motivators (like our intrinsic motivation to do something good for the others). It is useful to know how we react to various motivators and which of them work best in various situations. In general, it is true that losses loom larger than gains, so a potential loss can be a better motivator than a potential gain. Also, our perception is relative – the same amount of money can be seen as too small or too large depending on the reference point.
More precisely, social norms. People tend to be influenced by what other people are doing. Usually nobody wants to be the “outsider” and have fingers pointing to them, just because they are different.
People tend not to change the pre-set options, even for important decisions. The countries in which you are automatically considered to be an organ donor, unless you opt out, have a much larger proportion of donors than the countries in which you have to opt in to become one.
Logically, our behaviour is influenced by the things we pay attention to. And since there is a huge number of stimuli out there, our brain has to be selective – it pays attention mostly to what is new, simple and different. Sometimes, though, the brain actively seeks for cues that facilitate the decision making. For instance, it may search for an “anchor”, which is the information (mostly numerical) that is used as a basis for making a (numerical) judgement. However, such information does not need to be relevant in a given context and even a randomly picked number can influence how we decide.
Our behaviour is influenced also by our senses and at the unconscious level. The exposure to a certain type of words, sounds or smells can have a large impact on our behaviour. For example, the participants of an experiment that were required to read words related to old age left the room in a slower pace than the other participants. Or the smell of an all-purpose cleaner in a school canteen prompted the students to leave their tables cleaner.
It is nothing new that the emotions play an important role in our decision making. What is a bit more surprising is the fact that they influence us even when we do not realise it. An experiment has shown that when a mortgage offer included a picture of a smiling woman, the demand for the mortgage increased in the same amount as if the interest rate of the mortgage decreased by 25%.
Commitments and promises, mainly the public ones, determine how we behave. If you struggle to do something, it is useful to commit yourself in some way. Tell your friends that you will stop smoking by a certain date. This will force you to do everything to accomplish our goal, just to avoid the shame of admitting the failure in front of people that are important to you.
Our actions should be in accordance with what image we have, or we would like to have (in our own eyes, or in the others’ eyes). For instance, men are more willing to contribute to charities if they are approached by attractive women, because in this way they manage to keep a good image in the eyes of the opposite sex.
The MINDSPACE model has been created mainly for public institutions with the aim of improving public policies. Many governmental programmes are unsuccessful exactly because they are not designed for real people, but for “people” that are described by the theoretical (mainly economic) models.
This does not mean, though, that the framework is useless outside the public sector. Each one of us can learn a lot from it. If we better understand how our brains work and what influences our behaviour, we will be able to make better decisions, develop more successful products or provide better services and have better relationships with people around us.