A man faced with two equal choices is likely to be unable to make a decision.

A hungry man looking at two identical versions of a juicy Big Mac that have each been placed exactly the same distance away from him stands a pretty good chance of starving to death before he decides which one to eat. I know it sounds illogical but actually the imminent starvation of our hungry male subject is only imminent if he were, indeed, logical.

The story of this logical conundrum, which admittedly requires some explanation because it seems to defy common sense, began more than 2,000 years ago when the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle published On The Heavens which contained an interesting thought experiment:

…a man being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.

For some this is one of the earliest formulations of the Theory of Sufficient Reason which posits that there is a reason for everything even if we’re not always in position to ascertain the reason why something happens. For others it was mere sophistry designed to highlight the illogicality of certain assumptions regarding decision making. Thirteen hundred or so years later this would be reformulated in the paradox that is popularly known as Buridan’s Donkey where a donkey placed between two bales of hay that are the exact same distance away from him is so frozen with indecision that he ends up dying of starvation.

Metaphysics, Buridan’s Ass And Free Will

In reality no hungry and thirsty man has ever died when faced by a choice of food and drink and no one has succeeded in making an ass die of hunger when faced with plenty of food. Michael Hauskeller who is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Exeter in England, thinks that’s because the true logjam to our decision making lies in the word “identical” and in the real world no two things are every truly identical.

That argument too, however, is a little tainted. While the real world is, indeed, messy there do exist moments of equilibrium in decision making. In game theory this is called Nash equilibrium and it exists in every finite data set (or game).

Even Aristotle who originated the paradox that would become Buridan’s Ass could refute similar ones like Zeno’s Paradox by citing the argument from finite size where he’d essentially argue that since physical things have a specific, finite unit size there can be no infinity in their division and at some point a decision or a choice has to be made.

Where things get really interesting in the real world is that despite finite sizes there is the kind of precision in computing and mathematics that creates just the kind of problem Buridan’s Ass envisions. The late Isaac Asimov was quick to realize it and incorporate it in his fiction on robotics and computer scientist and Microsoft Research alumni, Leslie Lamport speculated about it in the early 80s, long enough to actually write a research paper that generated some considerable resistance from scientific publications.

At stake, of course, has always been Free Will. If, as suggested by the Theory of Sufficient Reason there is a cause for everything, then decision making becomes a largely automated task where each choice made is the result of extrinsic or intrinsic factors. This allows no room for Free Will and it transforms people and donkeys into biological automata programmed to respond to their environment.

Lamport’s work showed that this actually is a possibility in at least some instances for people and most definitely for programmed automata like computers.

The latest research in neuroscience has turned the evaluating system that was believed people used to make decisions on its head. When faced with a difficult decision between two choices of equal value, instead of using a stable valuation system that balances one choice against another, research shows that we use a dynamic value system that changes our preferences as we go along until we have reached a decision that favors one choice over the competing one.

What’s more, that decision now influences future choices not just in a similar situation but also in related ones.

Marketing And Consumer Decision Making

What marketers, advertisers and brand managers need to remember from this is that consumers faced with choices of equal value, like let’s say two different brands of chocolate offered at the same price will choose one but the choice will have now changed their preference so in future they will automatically go for the brand they chose the first time even if, now it is a little more expensive than its competitors.

Because the initial choice is subjective (i.e. emotional) using objective marketing points in order to sway a consumer’s decisions is not going to work. After the decision has been made using inducements to get the consumer back is not going to work.

So, what will work in this scenario?

  • Affective marketing techniques that connect product and consumption and use marketing as a social process have a much higher chance of delivering the desirable result.
  • Personalization and real value in the marketing mix.
  • Relevance and acknowledgement of context in the delivery of a product (or service).
  • A shift away from the automatic reach for marketing tools without first examining if they truly address the customer/brand relationship.

Decision science is showing us how the brain works. Use it to be a smarter marketer.


Learn to Make Better Decisions with The Sniper Mind

For a deeper dive into the systems that run us under the hood check out: Intentional – How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully

Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland