What Is Choice Blindness?

How We Fool Ourselves Into Believing We Get What We Want

Choice blindness can influence decisions
People often fail to notice when what they get doesn't match what they chose. Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images

Choice blindness suggests that people are not always aware of their own choices and preferences. Do you always get the things that you ask for? According to recent research, even when you don't get what you want, there's a strong chance that you won't even notice.

For example, imagine that you've been asked to taste two different types of jams and choose your favorite. You are then offered another taste of the one you selected as your favorite and then asked to explain why you chose it.

Do you think that you would notice that you actually tasted the jam that you had initially rejected?

In a 2010 study by Hall, Johansson, and their colleagues presented just such a scenario to supermarket volunteers, They found that less than 20 percent of participants noticed that they tasted the jam they had turned down just a few moments earlier. In many cases, the difference between the two flavors differed dramatically, ranging from spicy to sweet to bitter.

Psychologists refer to this lack of awareness of our own decisions and preference as choice blindness. Researchers have previously demonstrated the phenomenon with visual stimuli in a lab setting, and Hall and others have now revealed this effect also impacts other senses in real-world settings.

What Exactly Is Choice Blindness?

How do the experts define choice blindness? According to Petter Johansson and Lars Hall, the researchers who originally coined the term, people " ...often fail to notice glaring mismatches between their intentions and outcomes, while nevertheless being prepared to offer introspectively derived reasons for why they chose the way they did."

In other words, not only do we frequently fail to notice when we are presented with something different from what we really want; we will also come up with reasons to defend this "choice."

Choice blindness is a form of inattentional blindness, a phenomenon in which people fail to notice unexpected stimuli in the world around them.

Change blindness is another common type of inattentional blindness.

Researchers have demonstrated the effect in a number of areas including:

  • Visual choices (rating the attractiveness of male and female faces)
  • Tactile choices
  • Spoken decisions
  • Taste choices
  • Smell preferences
  • Online consumer choices
  • Moral judgments

Some research has even indicated the choice blindness might be utilized as a tool in the clinical domain to study obsessive-compulsive disorder and to help people develop healthier body-image ideals.

Research on Choice Blindness

The term choice blindness was first coined by researchers Johansson, Hall, Sikström, and Olsson in a clever experiment that demonstrated how rarely people notice the difference between their intention and the actual outcome. 

How did the researchers accomplish this? Johansson and colleagues (2005) showed 120 participants two different female faces for 2 to 5 seconds and then asked the volunteers to select the woman they thought was more attractive. They then engaged in some sleight of hand, using a card trick to instead give the participant the image they thought they had chosen when it was actually a picture of a different woman altogether. The volunteers were then asked to explain why they had chosen the woman and why they found her attractive.

Surprisingly, only about 13 percent of the participants even noticed the switch at all. Even more astonishing, those who didn't notice the swap then went on to confabulate reasons why they had selected the image. Some claimed they preferred blondes when they were given the image of a blonde woman, even though the image they had actually rated as more attractive was that of a brunette.

After the study, the participants were presented with a hypothetical situation:

If they were involved in an experiment where the faces they had chosen were switched, would they notice?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the volunteers were quick to overestimate their own abilities to notice such deception - 84 percent of the participants said that they would indeed notice such a switch.

The researchers refer to this phenomenon as "choice blindness blindness". When the participants then learned that they had been tricked and that they hadn't noticed the mismatch between the face they chose and the face they were presented with, many expressed both disbelief and shock.

Choice Blindness Can Influence Decisions Both Large and Small

Researchers have demonstrated how choice blindness impacts visual, taste, and smell preferences, but is it possible that it might have an influence on more important choices? This phenomenon couldn't possibly influence our moral or political choices, right? According to some recent research, the answer to that question is yes – choice blindness can impact things that we often hold as truisms about ourselves and our political choices.

In a 2013 study by Hall and colleagues, the researchers investigated how choice blindness might influence political attitudes. During a Swedish general election, participants were asked to state who they planned to vote for and were then asked to select their opinion for each of a number of wedge issues. Then using sleight of hand, the researchers altered their replies so that they were actually on the opposing political point of view. Participants were then asked to justify their responses on the altered issues.

Consistent with earlier research on choice blindness, only 22 percent of the manipulated responses were detected and more than 90 percent of the participants accepted and then endorsed at least one altered response.

So what do these results suggest?

"Our results indicate that political attitudes and partisan divisions can be far more flexible than what is assumed by the polls, and that people can reason about the factual issues of the campaign with considerable openness to change," the study's authors explain.

So What Causes Choice Blindness?

So why do so many people fail to notice these switches? Are we less aware of our preferences than we think we are?

  • Interest in the choice at hand is one factor that might play a role. When an issue is more important to the person, they might be likely to notice mismatches between what they choose and what they actually get. However, interest alone cannot explain why choice blindness occurs. In Hall et. Al.'s 2010 experiment, for example, adding an incentive (giving the participants their preferred choice as a gift) actually decreased mismatch detection.
  • Researchers note that factors such as attention and motivation can play a role. "To fully answer the question of what processes that determine the outcome of mismatch detection in our task we need to look beyond interest... Like the parent phenomenon of change blindness, choice blindness is likely to be sensitive to both motivational and attentional factors, to various encoding and retrieval demands, and to the particular nature of the external feedback used," Hall and colleagues explained.

The Impact of Choice-Blindness: Real-World Implications

As you might imagine, choice blindness can have important ramifications in the real world. The ability to recognize faces plays a major role in our everyday lives. While we might think that we are good at recognizing a face that we had previously selected, the reality is that we are actually quite poor at detecting switches.

Marketers and businesses also place a great deal of emphasis on consumers' ability to select their preferences. "The fact that participants often fail to notice mismatches between a taste of Cinnamon-Apple and Grapefruit, or a smell of Mango and Pernod is a result that might cause more than a hiccup in the food industry, which is critically dependent on product discrimination and preference studies to further the trade," Hall and colleagues suggested.

Choice blindness experiments also present researchers with a way to study something that was previously very difficult to investigate - introspection.

"If someone insists on knowing their own mind, it is very difficult to progress beyond this point," Hall explained in an interview with LiveScience. "By using choice blindness we can create a very particular—and very strange—situation in which we actually can say that someone is wrong despite the fact that they might vehemently claim to know their own mind."

Learn more about:


Hall L, Johansson P, Tärning B, Sikström S, & Deutgen T (2010). Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition, 117 (1), 54-61 PMID: 20637455

Hall L, Strandberg T, Pärnamets P, Lind A, Tärning B and Johansson P (2013) How the Polls Can Be Both Spot On and Dead Wrong: Using Choice Blindness to Shift Political Attitudes and Voter Intentions. PLoS ONE 8(4), e60554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060554

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikström, S., & Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to detect mismatches between intention and outcome in a simple decision task. Science (New York, N.Y.), 310(5745), 116–9. doi:10.1126/science.1111709. [PDF]

Johansson, P. & Hall, L. (n.d.). Choice blindness. Retrieved from http://www.lucs.lu.se/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Choice-Blindness-summary.pdf

Than, K. (2005). "Choice blindness" and how we food ourselves. LiveScience. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9616467/#.UoP3Zj_wD-I

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