Saturday, December 29, 2007

consumer decision making

I was just reading an article on the Journal of Consumer Affairs about consumer decision making in a very emotionally charged, confusing, and time pressured context (funeral services). This is a tough combination of a challenging environment, novice decision makers, and aggressive sales practices.

Not a situation I would wish on anyone, but a great scenario for research because it is an serious edge case - bringing out the extremes of the human decision making process. The researchers found that consumers of these services generally used many of the cognitive load-reducing decision heuristics that have been called biases specifically because of these results. I don't blame any consumer facing the death of a loved one for trying to reduce the attention dedicated to picking a coffin, plot, embalming services et&c. But the problem is that they

1. evaluated very few alternatives
2. trusted the reliability of the information they were given (by salespeople)
3. did not search for additional information

The authors suggest government regulation. My default opinion about regulation is that we should give consumers all the information they need, but not to constrain their choice. But in this case, perhaps stronger regulation is needed because it is hard to require consumers in this context to be responsible information acquirers and processors.