Benefits and Cost of Autonomy in Consumer Preferences

Autonomy is defined as a sense of autonomy that is at an increased or decreased level and has implications in many areas of life. This personality trait is also a condition that affects consumer welfare. This article contains information on the role of a sense of autonomy in consumer choices.

Positive Attribution Effect

Feeling in control of one’s choices facilitates the attribution of positive results to oneself, which leads to increased feelings of competence and a higher level of positive impact. It has been shown that people feel a greater sense of responsibility for positive outcomes when the chain of causality that connects their thoughts, actions, and outcome is prominent. For example, in situations that require self-control (such as choosing between a tasty but unhealthy dessert and a healthier but less delicious dessert), a sense of representation can help consumers resist temptation.

For example, resisting the temptation of a tastier product even though it is unhealthy, and choosing the virtuous option can provide consumers with a positive self-signal about their willpower and sense of virtue, increase the utility of the chosen option, whereas surrendering to the unhealthy choice signals a lack of will and reduces the benefit of the chosen option.

Agency Service

Beyond benefiting from positive self-attributes, consumer preferences for product customization or even making the product themselves can be understood as a search for autonomy and competence that helps to get more benefits from consumption. For example, the well-known “IKEA Effect” (Mochon et al. Show that consumers enjoy making certain products themselves rather than buying them, which in turn improves product ratings.

Finally, selection allows mismatch reduction mechanisms to come into play, which enhances consumers’ satisfaction with the chosen option: the experience of free choice prompts the consumer to support the features of the preferred option and minimize the attractiveness of the non-preferred option. Similarly, it has been shown that people get more satisfaction from consuming hedonic products than when the choice was made by an expert.

An increased sense of control in a person’s life can have far-reaching effects on physical health and other physiological outcomes in addition to psychological consequences. In a classic experiment, nursing home residents, who were said to be responsible for their own well-being and given a little more responsibility over the care of a plant, showed significant improvement in alertness, active participation, and overall health.

In contrast, residents who were said to be responsible for their own well-being and only given the opportunity to tell the staff how the factory should be looked after (without enacting these choices) did not show such improvements. This empirical finding suggests that feeling in control over one’s life can have significant consequences: among individuals living in very similar conditions, those who perceive their environment as empowering and those who implement their preferences (rather than simply indicate) experience a higher quality of life.

Benefit of Meaning

The prediction that attributing behavior to one’s own free choices might affect behavioral outcomes was also supported in a study of hotel cleaning staff. In this field experiment, half of the staff were told that the physical activities required by their job (changing linens, brushing the bathrooms, sweeping the floor) were in line with the professional’s daily exercise rules and thus provided to the staff. There is a reason why they chose to participate in these activities. Remarkably, after a few months, those in the treatment group lost more weight and had lower blood pressure.

Reminiscent of other types of placebo responses, these results show that understanding the modality and consequences of an action can change its physical consequences and emphasize the importance of communicating intent when designing public policies. This point has interesting implications for the design of customized policies and advertisements: it is increasingly common for communication to be data-driven and target individual consumers based on past purchases or browsing histories.

From the observations that there are benefits to understanding the methods and consequences of an action, consumers wonder whether recognizing the cause of a particular recommendation (or advertisements) will increase the rate of closure (click-through rate).

Perceived Lack of Self-Decision

Finally, what happens if consumers do not feel autonomous in their decision-making process further testifies to the benefits of choice. At its most extreme, the lack of self-determination can arise when consumers cannot control and understand the important aspects of their environment. Research on learned helplessness has suggested that people who are unable to influence a situation they strongly desire to change (for example, repeatedly inability to find jobs) will eventually retreat and experience severe psychological pain. They found that threatening would lead to various undesirable consequences, such as reduced benevolence and higher levels of aggression, and they exhibited lower self-control in intertemporal choices. These effects are driven by a weak sense of personal responsibility that provides a justification for behavior that would otherwise reflect negatively on the self. This is once again relevant from a data-driven marketing perspective: If consumers believe that marketers’ algorithm is becoming more and more persuasive and starting to anticipate their own preferences, this may provide a rationale for them to pursue attractive ads.

Costs of the Autonomy Experience in Consumer Choice

Although consumers often choose to see their decisions as they decide, the act of choice can also negatively affect consumers, with significant benefits as we have described. Below is information on several such triggers of the negative effects of perceived autonomy in consumer choice.

Tradeoff Conflict

Options often consist of trying to choose the best option from a set (for example, a product or service): as a first step, consumers examine and compare the characteristics of the different options. This task is relatively easy if one dominant option emerges from the selection set, clearly superior to the others. On the contrary, when there is no such option, this comparison process is cognitively taxing and requires the consumer to exchange and sacrifice some benefits in return for others.This may result in a less satisfactory consumption experience compared to consuming the same product unselected from other options.

Ease of Selection

While conflict of concessions takes cognitive costs from decision makers, consumers are sometimes better off adopting a satisfactory strategy or seemingly a dominant choice option. This observation has mixed implications for consumer well-being in the age of artificial intelligence and big data. On the one hand, personalized, targeted recommendations increase the likelihood of meeting the satisfaction threshold of the first option offered to the consumer and therefore reduce the likelihood of consumers making comparison shopping. The other convenience makes it easier for consumers to view a wide range of products, which can reduce both the likelihood of purchasing a product and the consumer satisfaction with the product.

Option Plugin

Even when consumers do not clearly compare attributes (for example, when evaluating options sequentially), they often imagine how they might use a product or how the experience would feel. This type of mental simulation and elaboration to inform to actively support the selection process triggers a feeling of mentally equipped with choices in the selection set, which creates a feeling of loss when one option is given up for another. This “adding option” effect, triggered by the selection process, can make consumers feel less confident that they are making the right choice and bolster the value of the options abandoned.

Overload Option

Choosing can also negatively affect the motivation of consumers. When options are plentiful, the act of selection can become cumbersome and consumers may be discouraged from making choices altogether. In one well-known study, the jam tasting booth attracted more people when it offered 24 different options as it offered 6 options, but there were more purchases from the 6-choice set than the 24-option set. However, this “over-selection” effect may be limited to situations where consumers are not familiar with the options offered.

More generally, people overestimate the benefits of choice: They do not include the temporal, cognitive, and emotional costs of research and thinking when deciding how much time they should devote to choosing a better option. Often times, the small benefits people gain from marginally choosing a better option do not compensate for the time and effort required to find it, and the choice becomes an unsatisfied experience.

Ultimately, the processes that allow consumers to gain pride and satisfaction from the choices they choose (a sense of personal responsibility and a sense of ownership of the decision) can lead to guilt and dissatisfaction when the outcome of a choice is negative. Providing consumers with a limited sense of autonomy can therefore paradoxically strengthen them and increase their well-being and motivation.

For example, choosing desserts in a restaurant where not all “healthy options” are out of stock will allow consumers to enjoy the full hedonic experience of chocolate cake without the guilt associated with an autonomous decision. Likewise, accepting a limited sense of autonomy in others can have positive consequences and make people more forgiving. A weaker belief in free will has been shown to predict less punitive attitudes towards punishment of criminals or other deviant behavior.


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