Customer Decision-Making: Going Beyond the Rational

Posted On: 03/10/19

By: Jay Zaltzman   

One of the most consistent findings of behavioral science: people all think their decision-making is completely rational, yet in reality, emotions play a major role in their final decisions.  In research situations, when asked a question about decision-making, participants tend to look for the rational answer.  How do we get beyond that thinking, to access the true factors in their decisions?  Following are two approaches.

Utilize cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes situations where people do things that contradict their beliefs.  For example, let’s say I believe I am very careful when it comes to spending money, yet I buy an expensive car.  Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort that comes with that type of discrepancy.  Human beings look to reduce those feelings of discomfort; in this example, I would need to add a belief that resolves the contradiction.  For example, I might tell myself that the car is well-built and therefore worth the investment.  Or that it’s important that others consider me to be a successful person.

It can be very valuable to uncover those conflicting beliefs among our customers and prospects.  Here’s a technique we’ve used successfully:  Ask research participants what people say about your product or service.  That will get you all the rational things participants think about it.  Then ask them what people really think about the product.  That one question does wonders at getting at the irrational beliefs people don’t want to admit to.  Note that the question is asked about “other people,” so participants can feel that they’re still rational, and they’re just telling us about the thoughts of all those other irrational people!

Understand the customer’s relationship to the brand   

We’ve all experienced situations where we try to ask deep probing questions about customers’ relationship with our brand, and they look at us blankly with a response like “what do you mean?  I needed X, Brand Y’s product was good, so I bought it.  End of story.”

But there’s more to it than that!  We recently borrowed from an exercise used in life coaching to ask research participants about the values that are most important to them, and then asked about ways in which the brand helps them achieve those values.

Here’s how we presented the exercise:

Different things are important to different people.  Following is a list of needs.  You might say all of them are desirable or important… but if you had to choose just five, which five would you say are the MOST important to you personally?

The list included 15 different values, such as the following:

  • Security: certainty, predictability
  • Compensation: money and/or benefits
  • Achievement: mastery of a task
  • Variety: diversity of activities, people, and tasks
  • Affiliation: connect with people

We followed up with questions about how the company we were researching might help them realize those important values.  After answering the question about which values were important, participants seemed to be in a more thoughtful state of mind and went much deeper with ways the brand helps them achieve the values than they had in prior research.


If we only ask research participants for answers to direct questions (e.g., “why do you prefer Brand X”), we’re only getting half the story.  We should always include exercises that look at emotional and contextual factors, in addition to rational considerations.  While these exercises are particularly well-suited to qualitative research, many of these approaches can be adapted to work in quantitative research, too.

Want more information? Please contact or for more information about the projects or the methodologies discussed, or to arrange for a presentation.