University of Pittsburgh
January 18, 2013

Presidential Campaign Data Contribute to Pitt Professor’s Study on Confidence in Decision Making

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PITTSBURGH—Research gathered during President Obama’s first campaign for president has contributed to a study that examines the impact of others’ choices on our confidence in our own decisions.

Cait Poynor LambertonCait Poynor Lamberton, assistant professor of business administration and Fryrear Faculty Fellow in the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, has published a paper in this month’s issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology that examines the impact of others’ choices on our confidence in our own decisions. Using survey data that included polling participants on their preferred 2008 presidential candidate, she and two coauthors found that a person’s confidence in his or her publicly stated choices can be diminished after knowing that another person has made the same choice for different reasons.

Taking President Obama’s upcoming inauguration as an example of the phenomenon, Lamberton said, “I expect I would be on the Mall with a million other people. Our brains would tell us that all of these people should be a lot like us because we’re all happy that Obama was re-elected. But if I see someone holding signs and displaying views that have nothing to do my reasons for supporting Obama, it’ll make me question whether I really voted for the right guy—or if my reasons for doing so were completely misguided.”

“We could call this the ‘strange bedfellows effect,’” Lamberton added. “When you see someone in the same bed with you and you’re not comfortable with them, the bed becomes pretty uncomfortable.”

The origins of Lamberton’s paper—“Same destination, different paths: When and how does observing others’ choices and reasoning alter confidence in our own choices?”—dates to the 2008 presidential campaign, when she was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. Lamberton and study coauthor Rebecca Walker Naylor, now an assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University attended a number of political rallies during the state’s primary election campaigns. They were struck by the differences between rallies for Arizona Senator John McCain and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

“At that point in his campaign, McCain was really speaking to both sides of the aisle, emphasizing his independence,” Lamberton said. “At the Huckabee rally, we heard more traditional sets of conservative values and platforms discussed. Both candidates were Republicans, but it was obvious that people who agreed that they wanted a Republican in office wanted that outcome for very different reasons. That’s what started us thinking.”

Lamberton and Naylor collaborated with Kelly L. Haws, assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, to conduct surveys with undergraduate students on choosing a graduate school, a vacation destination, and a presidential candidate to assess how different reasons for making the same choice can affect people’s decisions and confidence. 

In the study on choosing a presidential candidate, participants were individually asked to rank reasons why they were considering Barack Obama or John McCain as well as their confidence in their decision. Then, some participants were told that they would need to discuss their choice and reasons with a potential partner. They were given fabricated decisions from their potential partners, including some with reasons that were ranked in orders different from their own. The participants were then asked to reconsider the two candidates a second time and to again rank their confidence in their choice. The participants who read the fabricated decisions from partners with different reasons for choosing the same candidate were more likely to feel less confident in their decision.

While reviewing results from all the surveys, the team found that its central observation does not hold true in private situations where individuals are not expected to explain the reasoning behind their decisions.

“In the public domain, people anticipate that they may have to defend their choices,” Lamberton said. “As such, having strong reasoning underlying their choices becomes more important to them. By contrast, many of our private decisions aren’t even based on well-articulated reasons: We choose simply based on habit or instinct, but if no one forces us to, we don’t think too carefully about our reasoning.”