How Much Evidence Do You Need to Make a Decision? Depends on Your Mindset.
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Marketing Apr 22, 2024

How Much Evidence Do You Need to Make a Decision? Depends on Your Mindset.

When a choice is framed as a responsibility, we’ll go the extra mile to be accurate—even when it costs us.

illustration of person at desk with voting ballot and stack of books about voting and policy.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Galen Bodenhausen

Michalis Mamakos

Summary Across three studies, Kellogg’s Galen Bodenhausen and Michalis Mamakos find that framing a decision in terms of possible losses rather than possible gains leads people to gather more information before making that decision. This is true when there is a cost to gathering additional information, as well as when participants know the information could contradict their beliefs. The results suggest it is possible to nudge people to prioritize the accuracy of their decisions.

It can take a lot of information to make a good decision. If you’re hiring someone, you likely conduct multiple rounds of interviews and check references. If you’re launching a new product, you may begin with some A/B testing.

But gathering all that information has a cost in time, money, or both. So how do you decide when you have enough information to make an informed decision?

New research from the Kellogg School shows that how a decision is framed—whether as a goal you’re eager to achieve or a responsibility that you don’t want to mess up—influences how much information people gather before making that decision.

Across three studies, the researchers found that we gather more information when decisions are framed in terms of possible losses rather than possible gains, even when acquiring that information is costly. This holds even when we’re gathering information that we know might contradict our own beliefs—a finding that could influence how politicians frame their messaging to voters.

“When you make people averse to risk, they’re willing to pay to get more information to make a decision they can be confident about,” says Galen Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at Kellogg and coauthor on the study.

A prevention vs. promotion mindset

The research is rooted in a psychological concept called regulatory-focus theory.

The idea is that people have one of two different types of motivations for reaching a goal. Broadly speaking, those with a promotion focus are eager to achieve a goal because it offers a chance for self-advancement—a gain—while those with a prevention focus are vigilant about the need to fulfill their obligations, and thus they’re more occupied with what they might lose if they make a bad decision. Prior research has shown that people with a promotion focus are more likely to take risks in their decisions, while prevention-oriented people are more deliberate.

A few previous studies looked at how regulatory focus impacts information gathering, but none presented participants with an economic cost for gathering information. Bodenhausen, along with Northwestern postdoc Michalis Mamakos, wanted to see how a monetary cost would impact decision-making in the context of regulatory focus.

Costly information and regulatory focus

Roughly 400 online participants were recruited for each of the first two studies and divided into a promotion- or prevention-focused group. They were then presented with a scenario in which a company had to choose one of two products to greenlight. The participant’s job was to guess which product the company picked.

Before doing so, participants were allowed to ask for information to help make their decision. The information might offer insight into the product’s pricing or competitiveness, for example. The two studies were identical except that the cost of information was 10 cents in the first study and just 5 cents in the second.

A prevention focus “makes people more vigilant and careful. They want to play it safer.”

Michalis Mamakos

The language the researchers used to describe the participant’s job varied for the promotion- and prevention-focused groups. The promotion group was told this was a “goal” and that they could earn up to a 70-cent “bonus” for picking the correct choice, minus whatever they spent on information. The prevention group was told this was a “task” and that they would receive a “budget” of 70 cents and would lose money for each piece of information they requested—but they would lose the entire budget if they made the wrong final decision.

Participants could then click on up to five different pieces of information before deciding that they were ready to make their decision.

Across both studies, participants in the prevention group were likely to examine more pieces of information before making a decision—an average of 2 in the prevention group and 1.66 in the promotion group in the first study, and 2.75 versus 2.4 in the second (where information-seeking was a bit cheaper).

This gibed with what the researchers had expected. A prevention focus “makes people more vigilant and careful,” Mamakos says. “They want to play it safer.”

Regulatory focus and political candidates

In the first two studies, participants didn’t have a stake in which product the company chose to pursue; they just wanted to pick the correct answer. In the final experiment, however, the researchers wanted to see what would happen if participants did, in fact, have a stake in the choice while still wanting to pick the correct answer.

They did this by introducing another psychological theory, motivated reasoning, into the study. “This is when there’s a preference for the outcome and you’re not driven just by making a good decision. You want a very specific thing to be true,” Mamakos says.

The study was similar in design to the first two but focused on political candidates instead of products. The researchers recruited roughly 1,200 online participants who had stated their partisan political identities. (About two-thirds were Democrats and one-third Republicans, but the researchers found no difference in the results based on party affiliation.)

Participants were again divided into prevention- and promotion-focused groups, with the decision framed as either a goal or a task. They were then presented with a scenario in which polls had been conducted on two candidates who competed in an unnamed 2022 gubernatorial election. The participants were asked to predict which candidate won and could ask for up to five pieces of information from the polls to make their decision. Information might include insight into which candidate was the better communicator or more intelligent. Each piece of information cost 5 cents.

But for this study, some participants were never told the candidates’ party affiliations, while others were given this information. Participants who knew the candidates’ political affiliations were thus faced with the fact that each piece of information they gathered might confirm or contradict the superiority of the candidate from their own political party.

The results showed that when the candidates’ parties were named, people were willing to stop seeking information sooner if what they had already seen aligned with their personal views compared with those whose initial piece of information contradicted their political hopes.

But, interestingly, the impact of being in the prevention- or promotion-focused group held despite the additional impulse to seek information with which participants agreed. As in the first two studies, prevention-focused participants still sought out more information, on average, than promotion-focused participants, regardless of whether the first piece of information aligned with their beliefs.

Convincing voters to seek out more information

The results suggest that people can be nudged toward seeking out more information when making a political decision, even if they risk finding information with which they disagree.

“If we want to increase people’s desire to achieve accuracy versus a preferred outcome, regulatory-focus framing can help,” Mamakos says. Candidates could, for example, stress what voters have to lose by not looking up more information on an opponent, if that’s a goal.

This is important because while most of us have a dominant regulatory focus, either tendency can generally be elicited depending on how a decision is framed, Bodenhausen explains. And the power of that framing can overcome other decision-making impulses.

“It’s possible to frame tasks in different ways that activate different priorities,” he says. “The framing has its own impact that is maintained despite these other countervailing concerns of how much information costs or having a preferred outcome.”

Featured Faculty

Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Marketing; Co-Director of the Center on the Science of Diversity

About the Writer

Emily Stone is a writer in Chicago. She is the former senior editor at Insight.

About the Research

Mamakos, Michalis, and Galen Bodenhausen. 2024. “Motivational Drivers of Costly Information Search.” Cognition.

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