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Pragmatic Brain Science

Irrational Consumers or Fast Thinking?

Posted On  March 3, 2015

The other day, I read a bunch of articles about “irrational” consumers. Quick to apply my knowledge, I decided to point out to my wife that her decision to spend an extra $10 for branded bed sheets was irrational, hoping we could both save some time and end our shopping trip early. You can guess how things turned out when I told her she was being irrational.

We’re reluctant to tell people to their faces that they are being illogical or unreasonable. Then, why are so many marketing “experts” calling our consumers irrational. Hey, I get the payoff: it makes for a good headline, and we marketers can feel better or superior when we see consumers make decision we dislike.

The problem is that calling consumers irrational misses the whole point. It’s our responsibility to understand the consumers’ decision process, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. Calling consumers irrational also suggests that something is wrong with them when they don’t make the decisions we expect or want (hence, my wife’s upset).

In fact, these seemingly “irrational” decisions are quite predictable and measurable, guided by a “fast thinking” system.  Think of it this way: every day at work you sort through many emails. Some are very important, and you spend a lot of energy responding, clarifying the language and proofreading for typos. Other emails are less important, so you respond almost automatically, with relatively little concern for crafting the perfect message. Do you consider the second, quick response to be “irrational” or is it simply a more efficient way for you to do your job?

Your brain makes similar calculations thousands of times each day. Some decisions demand a lot of effort, but many more simply aren’t as demanding. When the decision isn’t very important or if you have a lot of experience with it, your brain decides to use “fast thinking”, relying on a set of non-conscious rules and lessons that worked well in the past. “Fast thinking” enables us to make decisions efficiently, and by the way, they are often good decisions.  After years of laundry, for instance, your wife may know that certain brands last longer than others warranting a higher price. In contrast, so-called “rational” decision making can manifest as deliberation and over thinking. Thinking “long and hard,” does not necessarily lead to better decisions. In summary, you may make a few decisions each day that fail to “maximize your utility,” but does it really matter?

Rather than relating to consumers as irrational, we can simply understand that some decisions are better made using “fast thinking” systems and then choose to communicate with consumers on that level. Brand messages that please consumers’ “fast thinking” systems and align with the “rational mind” will produce satisfied customers, more successful brands, and happier marriages.

Written by Charles Swann
Charles Swann has over 10 years of marketing & consulting experience, using consumer insights to solve business issues. As Vice President and Account Manager, Charles is particularly interested in linking consumers' non-conscious motivations to their decision making, and applying that information to brands and products.


  1. Hi Charles, nice article. Agree just we market researchers can’t explain or recreate with our fancy questions or algorithms what people do, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. It’s fast, intuitive decisions. The problem is that if we ask them why they have done this, most people will try to post-rationalise their decisions, which isn’t really the truth. Lots for our industry to think about.

  2. One of the simplest things for us to measure is habitual buying; I bought it because….it’s what I always buy! Decomposing the habitual buying into genuine loyalty (I believe my brand to be superior) vs satisficing (my brand is fine so I have no need to invest the effort — and take the risk — to try something new) can help you distinguish those who are post-rationalizing from those whose criteria are more accurately reported.

  3. I’ve never thought of purchase decisions as irrational moves, they are a collection of experiences gained which allows a buyer to make decisions which they are comfortable with. For example, I can go out and buy an HP tablet without giving it much thought. While some may think irrational, it is borne of a set of experiences with the brand, the form factor, the OS that make be confident to make a quick purchase.
    The interesting part is understanding that some buyers can process information quickly and some can not. For those that make fast decisions, your only ability to link with say a consumer buys a tablet will be with that sales person on the Best Buy floor. The slow decision makers however provide more opportunities to intersect when they go home and go to search engines, vendor web sites, tech info sites, blogs, social media to get more information.
    Its a matter of integrated communications with both fast and slow buyer behaviours.

  4. Cool article. It is interesting to find that consumers make purchasing decisions based off of a numerous amount of factors. In this case (from how I interpret), your wife actually consciously acknowledged the brand which may or may not have trigerred this “impulse purchase.” I think that we as marketers would like to find out a tad bit more information by asking the consumer, in this case your wife, as to why exactly this product was purchased. Echoing what I said previously, consumers make purchasing decisions based off of a numerous amount of factors. I’m interested into knowing what factors triggered this particular purchase. The brand itself does not necessarily always prompt “superiority” in the minds of the consumer. Your wifes purchase could have been triggered by multiple factors, even the price. I’ve found that higher prices, in some cases, appeal to the consumer. Very intriguing learning and understanding the psychology behind the consumer.


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