What Car Buying Can Teach Us About Consciousness (And Vice Versa)

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Are car buyers rational? Anyone who deals with car-shopping consumers on a regular basis would probably answer with a hearty “no.” In fact in my experience, helping prospective car buyers navigate the many considerations and options available on the market usually ends with me throwing up my hands and saying “if you like a car, just buy it.” But according to research cited by Wired’s Jonah Lehrer, conscious reasoning might not be the ideal way to shop for a car in the first place. Sometimes “going with the gut,” and making a decision without thinking it through is the best way to solve complex choices like finding the car that’s perfect for you.

The fundamental characteristic of car shopping, complexity, is a problem consumers face throughout their lives. With over 30 automotive brands on sale in the US, consciously working your way through even the most basic level of differentiation is no mean feat… and it gets tougher from there. Each brand has between one and 20 models, and each model has a seemingly infinite choice of drivetrains, trim levels, option packs and accessories. In short, navigating the new car market alone in a methodical, rational way is a task of nearly unimaginable complexity and tedium. Add the used market, the locations of sales and service centers, and try to match that all up with your own complex matrix of needs and wants, and it’s amazing that anyone considers car-buying a remotely rational process. And, according to research published in a 2006 paper by Ap Dijksterhuis, this is all the more reason to not even try to take on the challenge consciously.

Lehrer describes the Dijksterhuis experiment:

Dijksterhuis got together a group of Dutch car shoppers and gave them descriptions of four different used cars. Each of the cars was rated in four different categories, for a total of sixteen pieces of information. Car number 1, for example, was described as getting good mileage, but had a shoddy transmission and poor sound system. Car number 2 handled poorly, but had lots of legroom. Dijksterhuis designed the experiment so that one car was objectively ideal, with “predominantly positive aspects”. After showing people these car ratings, Dijksterhuis then gave them a few minutes to consciously contemplate their decision. In this “easy” situation, more than fifty percent of the subjects ended up choosing the best car.

Dijksterhuis then showed a separate group of people the same car ratings. This time, however, he didn’t let them consciously think about their decision. After he gave them the automotive facts, he distracted them with some simple word games for a few minutes. He then interrupted their fun and asked the subjects, rather suddenly, to choose a car. Dijksterhuis designed the experiment so that these people would be forced to make a decision using their unconscious brain. (Their conscious attention had been focused on solving the word puzzle.) The end result was that they made significantly worse choices than those who were allowed to consciously think about the cars.

Wait, so reason works… right? Well, yes, as long as the decision is suitably simple. After all, 16 pieces of information is not wildly complex. In fact, compared to real-world car-shopping, that’s fill-in-the-lines easy.

But Dijksterhuis was just getting warmed up. He then repeated the experiment, only this time he rated each car in twelve different categories. (These “hard” conditions more closely approximate the confusing reality of car shopping, in which consumers are overwhelmed with facts and figures.) In addition to learning about the quality of the transmission and the engine’s gas mileage, people were told about the number of cupholders, the size of the trunk, and so on. Their brain had to deal with forty-eight separate pieces of information.

Did conscious deliberation still lead to the best decision? Dijksterhuis found that people given time to think in a rational manner – they could carefully contemplate each alternative – now chose the ideal car less than 25 percent of the time. In other words, they performed worse than random chance. However, subjects who were distracted for a few minutes found the best car nearly 60 percent of the time. (Similar results were achieved with Ikea shoppers, looking for a leather couch.) They were able to sift through the clutter of automotive facts and find the ideal alternative. Dijksterhuis summarized the implications of the data:

The moral of this research is clear…Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.

Fascinating to be sure… but why are we talking about research from 2006? Well, it turns out that a new Cornell study replicated the Dijksterhuis experiment, with an even more provocative angle: separating detail analysis and feeling analysis.

The scientists began with a straightforward replication of the Dijksterhuis car paradigm. Instead of distracting subjects, however, they randomly divided students into a “feeling-focus” group and a “detail-focus” group. The group focused on their feelings were told to reflect on how the various car alternatives made them feel – did they like a large trunk? – while those focused on details were told to remember the various automotive attributes. The assumption is that focusing on feelings leads people to rely on the output of their unconscious, while focusing on details leads to a more deliberate mode of thought.

Once again, the “detail-focused” group excelled at making simple decisions. Thinking in a rational manner made them nearly 20 percent more effective at identifying the best car alternative when there were only sixteen total pieces of information. However, those focused on feelings proved far better at finding the best car in the complex condition. While deliberate thinkers barely beat random chance, those listening to their feelings identified the ideal option nearly 70 percent of the time. Similar results were found when the volunteers were quizzed about subjective choice quality, as those relying on their emotions tended to be much more satisfied with their car selection. In a final pair of experiments, the researchers demonstrated that the advantages of emotional decision-making could be undone by a subsequent bout of deliberation, which suggests that we shouldn’t doubt a particularly strong instinct, at least when the considering lots of information.

Not only is rational thought a “cognitive bottleneck,” but it can actually distract from an intuitive understanding of a complex situation. And though car buying is a perfect test for these kinds of inquiries into cognitive processes, this anti-logic logic holds true for other complex choices. I would submit that this science even goes some way towards proving how a “go-with-the-gut” guy like Bob Lutz can thrive in such a complex and (allegedly) rationalized industry. After all, Lutz’s greatest complaint about his fellow GM execs was that they were forever “overthinking” problems, rather than instinctively allowing the optimal solution to simply occur in their subconscious.

The upshot? The next time someone asks you for advice about which car to buy, tell them to go with whatever feels right. If anything, the key is helping them understand what their needs are. Once they know what they need in an abstract sense (and have a sense of which makes and brands offer which attributes), it’s only a matter of time before their subconscious tells them which car to buy. At that point, it’s time to step back. Logic and reason has done everything it can.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Samir Syed Samir Syed on Sep 27, 2011

    Great article. I've lost count of the 100+ message email threads my friends have had with each other on GMAIL over "what car should I buy?". I think that the best approach is one of balance. One of the biggest financial mistakes a person can make is buying the wrong car. If we went 100% with our gut, we'd have Nascar Dads buying impractical Corvettes (for example). Basically, figure out what you can afford and then drive what you like in that range. Then pick the one that gives you the most pleasure and meets the mid-bound of your needs (therefore- you do not need a full-cab pick-up if 99% of your trips are solo and you tow a boat twice a year.)

  • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Sep 29, 2011

    "Just think about it deeply, then forget it. Then, an idea will jump up in your face." -Don Draper

  • Stephen My "mid-level" limited edition Tonino Lambo Ferraccio Junior watch has performed flawlessly with attractive understated style for nearly 20 years. Their cars are not so much to my taste-- my Acura NSX is just fine. Not sure why you have such condescension towards these excellent timepieces. They are attractive without unnecessary flamboyance, keep perfect time and are extremely reliable. They are also very reasonably priced.
  • Dana You don’t need park, you set auto hold (button on the console). Every BMW answers to ‘Hey, BMW’, but you can set your own personal wake word in iDrive. It takes less than 5 minutes to figure that that out, btw. The audio stays on which is handy for Teams meetings. Once your phone is out of range, the audio is stopped on the car. You can always press down on the audio volume wheel which will mute it, if it bothers you. I found all the controls very intuitive.
  • ToolGuy Not sure if I've ever said this, or if you were listening:• Learn to drive, people.Also, learn which vehicles to take home with you and which ones to walk away from. You are an adult now, think for yourself. (Those ads are lying to you. Your friendly neighborhood automotive dealer, also lying to you. Politicians? Lying to you. Oh yeah, learn how to vote lol.)Addendum for the weak-minded who think I am advocating some 'driver training' program: Learning is not something you do in school once for all time. Learning how to drive is not something that someone does for you. It is a continuous process driven by YOU. Learn how to learn how to drive, and learn to drive. Keep on learning how to drive. (You -- over there -- especially you, you kind of suck at driving. LOL.)Example: Do you know where your tires are? When you are 4 hours into a 6 hour interstate journey and change lanes, do you run over the raised center line retroreflective bumpers, or do you steer between them?
  • Mike Bradley Advertising, movies and TV, manufacturing, and car culture have all made speeding and crashing the ultimate tests of manhood. Throw in the political craziness and you've got a perfect soup of destruction and costs.
  • Lou_BC Jay Leno had said that EV's would be good since they could allow the continued existence of ICE cars for enthusiasts. That sentiment makes sense. Many buyers see vehicles as a necessary appliance.