After Donald Trump won the US presidency in 2016, many Americans who hadn’t voted for him wondered: What exactly motivated so many other voters to choose him?
It was a question right in the research wheelhouse of Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Kate Barasz, a marketing expert who studies consumer decision-making, with a particular interest in how we make sense of other people’s choices.
Just five days after the election, Barasz conducted an online survey that asked Trump voters what spurred them to vote for the president. The answer was not what people on the other end of the political spectrum assumed, according to a July article in Cognition, “I Know Why You Voted for Trump: (Over)inferring Motives Based on Choice.”
In the survey of about 300 voters, Trump voters were asked how important certain political issues—for example, immigration, foreign relations, economic policy, and environmental policy—were to their choice. Meanwhile, people who had voted for Hillary Clinton were asked how important they thought these policy issues were to “an average Trump voter.”
As it turns out, Clinton voters largely believed that Trump supporters voted for the candidate because of his most prominent and seemingly extreme stance: his proposal to crack down on illegal immigration.
Yet, these Clinton voters may have jumped to the wrong conclusions. While Clinton voters assumed that Trump’s immigration policy drove people to vote for him, Trump supporters said the issue didn’t figure into their decision nearly as much as Clinton voters thought. In fact, just as exit polls indicated on Election Day, most Trump voters reported caring most about the candidate’s economic policy.
The results of this study, as well as others by the research team, show that we often exaggerate how important extreme features figure into the decisions other people make.
“You see someone choose an option with an extreme feature and you think that must have been the most important feature underlying the choice,” says Barasz, who co-wrote the article with Tami Kim of the University of Virginia and Ioannis Evangelidis of Bocconi University. “In this case, Trump’s extreme feature was his immigration policy, and many inferred that Trump voters were therefore disproportionately motivated by immigration.”
The problem is, these assumptions often lead us to oversimplify other people’s motives, and we fail to recognize that people consider many factors and make complex tradeoffs before making a decision. “Clinton voters didn’t consider that some Trump supporters actually may have voted for him in spite of—rather than because of—his immigration policy,” Barasz says.
And when we misjudge other people’s decisions, our false perceptions can also distort our opinions about others in general. In this case, the more important Clinton voters thought immigration policy was to Trump voters, the more negatively they viewed Trump voters overall.
“It is, of course, impossible to say where the truth lies; were Clinton voters exaggerating the importance of immigration, or were Trump voters underreporting it?” Barasz says. “But these perceptions really affected how people felt about each other. Clinton voters felt like they had this diagnostic information about Trump supporters, and that may or may not have been true.”
How the findings are relevant for businesses
In fact, we tend to make all kinds of inferences about other people based on a variety of life choices they make, including where they live, whom they marry, the work they do, and even the products they purchase.
In one study, the research team asked decision-makers to choose between two lightbulbs. The bulbs were equally matched on most dimensions, including price, wattage, and lifespan—all except for one feature: energy efficiency. One bulb was extremely ecofriendly and the other was not. Almost all decision-makers happened to choose the ecofriendly bulb, but they also reported that price was the attribute they actually cared about most.
Next, another group of participants simply observed the choice that other people made: the selection of the ecofriendly light bulb. When asked what had motivated other people’s choices, observers significantly overweighted the importance of ecofriendliness and underweighted the importance of price. They also overestimated the extent to which decision-makers would buy ecofriendly products in the future.
It’s important for companies to know that looks can be deceiving, Barasz says. She hopes the results make business leaders think twice about how they size up their customers and rely on previous purchases to predict the products they want.
“For instance, imagine you see a person buy a plain black backpack,” she says. “You probably have no idea what motivated the person’s choice; it could’ve been the price, or the brand, or the shape—any number of things. Now, imagine instead that the person bought a bright red Hawaiian-print backpack, where the color is the extreme feature. You likely conclude they bought it for the color, and you just feel like you know more about that person’s preferences. What we’re trying to show is that this often is not the case.”
Second-guess your assumptions
One strategy that might encourage us to keep an open mind about other people’s decisions: Think about the nuances that factor into our own choices, Barasz suggests.
For instance, the researchers repeated the lightbulb study and had people take the role of both decision-maker and observer. When people first made the choice for themselves—choosing the ecofriendly lightbulb but still reporting that they cared most about price—they were less likely to overweight the importance of ecofriendliness for other people. In other words, they seemed to understand that the extreme feature had been incidental to, rather than central to, their own choice, and that helped them realize that other people are likely to consider other features as well.
In general, Barasz hopes the findings will make us question our often knee-jerk assumptions about what motivates other people’s choices.
“If we see someone make a choice and we think we immediately know why,” she says, “we ought to take a moment to stop and question whether our assumptions are true.”
About the Author
Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
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