Freedom to Choose

If you want me to stay with you, don’t tell me what to do.


Today, I came across this really interesting article on the power of choice.  It explains a phenomenon called psychological reactance, which says that if I am a loyal user of a product or a service and I feel like my loyalty has been won at the expense of being able to freely choose another, similar product or service, I’m very likely to switch out of using the original as soon as an alternative comes along.

Get it?

It’s about how much we dislike monopolies and being told we can’t do something else, even if we don’t want to do something else right this minute.

The research in the article was done using search engines and online shopping sites.  Let’s work with that.  Let’s say you have grown to use Amazon to buy everything, from holiday gifts to appliances for your kitchen.  You love it.  It’s convenient, fast, and easy.  You can’t imagine using another site for purchases, and you don’t, even though there are others out there.

Now, in a slightly different scenario, you still love Amazon, but it started out as the only game in town.  You were, in this sense, forced to start using it for your online purchases.  There simply was no other choice.  The study shows that in this scenario, you’d be 51% more likely to switch to a competing website as soon as one came along.

If, instead, you felt like you had the opportunity to choose Amazon from a selection of similar sites at the beginning, you’d be only 23% more likely to switch to a competitor website.

This has some interesting implications for any change effort.  It confirms the long-held notion that engaging people from the earliest stages of the change is essential for their commitment to the effort.  

And, this study seems to suggest that people need to feel like they have had the chance to freely choose to come along for the change in order to be more fully committed.  This ability to opt-in may the element that can make a big difference in how readily the new idea gets taken up.

This makes a lot of sense.  Treat me like an adult: tell me what my options are and let me choose among them, and I’ll be much more likely to stay around and do what we agree makes sense.