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People With Autism Are Better at Avoiding Sneaky Marketing Tricks

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A new study on decision-making in people with autism spectrum conditions has found that they are more consistent in their choices when evaluating product options.

Consumers are constantly bombarded with endless choices, often tailored specifically to influence their buying decisions. But now it looks like having traits on the autism spectrum can actually protect you from some marketing tricks.

When it comes to processing information and performing various cognitive tasks, people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are known to be better at tuning out distracting stimuli or irrelevant context.

“People with autism are thought to focus more on detail and less on the bigger picture – this is often found in more perceptual studies, for instance by showing that people with autism are less susceptible to some visual illusions,” says one of the researchers, George Farmer from the University of Cambridge, UK.

“We wanted to know if this tendency would apply to higher-level decision-making tasks.”

The team recruited 90 people with diagnosed ASC and 212 neurotypical people without any conditions. Both groups were repeatedly presented with a series of ten product pairs across different categories, including things like cell phones, orange juice, USB drives and others.

The participants had to choose a product with just two features to go by – such as the vitamin C and calorie content of an orange juice, for example.

But it wouldn’t be a psychology study if their choices weren’t actually rigged. Crucially, each product pair was accompanied with a ‘decoy’ product with features selected to make one of the two test choices more appealing.

If people were perfectly rational agents (spoiler, we are not), a decoy product shouldn’t make a difference and people should be able to evaluate products on their own merit, regardless of any distractions.

“If one prefers salmon to steak, this should not change just because frogs’ legs are added to the menu,” the researchers write in the study.

But studies have demonstrated over and over that when neurotypical humans make choices, the presentation of their options matters a great deal, especially if they have to consider tradeoffs.

Throw a bad product into the mix, and suddenly the whole rationale changes – this is known as the ‘attraction effect’, a phenomenon well-known and readily leveraged by marketers who try to influence consumer behaviour.

By using specific decoys in their study design, the team was able to see whether people switched their product selection when the decoy was swapped, suddenly making the other product in the pair more attractive without changing any of the core product features.

As it turns out, participants with ASC really did make more consistent choices and were less swayed by the decoys as opposed to neurotypical participants.

“From an economic perspective, this suggests that people with autism are more rational and less likely to be influenced by the way choices are presented,” says Farmer.

The researchers note that their findings have “practical implications for the socioeconomic functioning of people with ASC,” because the attraction effect influences more than just which toothpaste you might get at the supermarket. It can also have an effect on policy decisions, legal judgements and even election choices.

The team emphasises that people with ASC are not entirely impervious to decoys, but they are significantly less influenced by them than the general population.

“[C]hoice consistency is regarded as normative in conventional economic theory, so reduced context sensitivity would provide a new demonstration that autism is not in all respects a ‘disability’,” the researchers write in the paper.

But they also note that there could be a price to pay – sometimes using context to make an optimum choice is a handy strategy, especially if you’re not being swindled by an advertising executive.

This is the first time the attraction effect has been studied in participants with ASC.

Based on the interesting results, the team now hopes there will be further scope for studying other well-known psychological quirks to better understand how people on the autism spectrum process the world.

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