A while back a story was related to me about a someone a friend of ours knew who was in the market for a new car. It seems her old Ford van had been giving her nothing but trouble; always in the shop for expensive repairs. This woman perused Consumer Reports discovering that the Toyota van received high ratings for safety, fuel economy and dependability. But before making her decision, she asked a friend who, unexpectedly, strongly discouraged her, saying: “Oh my, I’ve heard the Toyota’s are nothing but trouble; I know someone who owns one and they hate it”.
So, even after all the trouble she had experienced with her Ford, purchased another Ford van instead of the Toyota.
This is the power of the testimonial and it influences our decision making both above and below the conscious level. We see it in every aspect of our lives, from deciding whether to purchase a lottery ticket to selecting a life partner. Though often mountains of objective data may be available to us, we quite often come to our decisions by emotional reasons – and often, based heavily on the power of testimonials.
We like to think of ourselves as informed, astute consumers; that our choices are rational and well thought out. But even after balancing pros and cons, the fact remains that we generally adhere closely to products or concepts that are familiar to us. For example, marketing research substantiates that customers overwhelmingly prefer Tylenol brand pain reliever over its exact chemical equivalent, generic Acetaminophen. Even in accepting the fact that the generic costs significantly less, the Tylenol brand is more often perceived as “better”.
As I pointed out in my review of Barry Schwartz's book, “The Paradox of Choice”, decision making can create stress for us. We struggle on various levels with the possibility of making an incorrect decision. Psychologists even have a term for how we deal with the conflicts of decision making: Cognitive Dissonance. Even after we have decided, a whole set of psychological processes come into play which we use to justify in our minds that the decision we have come to was the right one. Our motivation to quell the dissonance wherever possible can be very strong.
Because testimonials are so powerful in our decision making process, we frequently seek out the opinions of people we like and trust. An entire industry, advertising and sales, has been developed to prod our decision making and making us feel good about parting with our hard earned money. More often than not, emotions, not rationality, are what carry the decision.
The power of testimonials often comes to the forefront during our elections process. We tend to associate with people who act and think similarly to us. In recalling the most recent elections, how little political advertising contained any comparative statistics to support the assertions of one view over another. Where scant statistical comparisons provided, did we discount the “facts” from the candidate or position we opposed yet accept them from the candidate we already supported? It is more likely the case that political advertising serves to support the decision we had already made than change our view dramatically.
I recently attended another debate between a theologian and an Atheist; the topic of question; whether or not there exist life after death. From the theologian’s standpoint, the accounts of people who have experienced visions and feelings from Near Death Experiences (NDE) formed the basis of his position that there must be life after death. Many of these testimonials are quite compelling when viewed individually. But they remain personal anecdotes, experiences beyond our own and which likely have other origins that can be explained through medical and scientific causes. In decisions such as these, often the only basis on which we are able to decided relies entirely on faith alone.
The fact remains that our brains often are not very adept at separating objective analytical data from our perceptions, our expectations from the broader ramifications we hope will come from those decisions – specifically, how we will “feel” about the choices we make. Whether we notice or not, we rely on testimonials which are abundantly available to us.
After all, can 20,697 physicians be wrong?