Sound familiar? You might have heard this phrase when asking your partner or a close friend where to go for dinner. You may have even uttered it yourself a few times. Whether it’s choosing a restaurant, a movie to watch, or a travel destination, we face numerous consumption decisions that we make jointly with others in our everyday lives. Compared to independent consumption decisions, these joint consumption decisions often entail a more complex process. In such situations, consumers may seek to avoid conflict and simplify the decision making process. A common way to achieve this is to communicate that one has no particular preference for any of the options presented to them. People generally assume that such a “no-preference communication” is a polite way to allow the other party to choose according to their own preferences. But do such statements actually help reduce potential conflict and decision intricacies?
A recent Journal of Marketing Research article by Nicole You Jeung Kim, Yonat Zwebner, Alixandra Barasch, and Rom Y. Schrift explored how communication of “no preference” impacts joint decision making and the associated consumption experience. Results from six studies, using hypothetical and real-life joint decisions, reveal that no-preference communication increases—rather than decreases—the complications often encountered by decision makers. Moreover, researchers find that such no-preference communication can even cause a reduction in the affinity a decision maker feels for the co-consumer (i.e., the person communicating having no preferences). These effects are driven by the decision maker’s perception that the co-consumer does indeed have a preference but does not disclose it. Due to the further inferential assumption that the co-consumer’s (undisclosed) preferences may not match their own, the decision maker chooses an option they prefer less, ultimately reducing their enjoyment in the consumption setting. Interestingly, these negative effects are not expected from the party who communicates not having a preference.
Due to the assumption that the co-consumer’s undisclosed preferences may not match their own, the decision maker chooses an option they prefer less, ultimately reducing their enjoyment.
The insights from this article have several implications for both social and business settings. We talked to the authors of this research to learn more about the background of the study, the generalizability of its findings, and the recommendations we can derive both for our personal lives as consumers and for shaping consumer decisions as marketers.
Q: Prior research has typically focused on resolving discrepancies in substantial joint decision making (e.g., deciding to buy a house or a car). What inspired you to study joint decision making in a low-commitment context and, in particular, the effects of unstated preferences?
A: We believed that the communication of no preference is a very common experience that has a real impact on many consumption and relationship outcomes but felt that there was a lack of understanding about this phenomenon in the literature. If you think about it, joint decision making for mundane, daily decisions should be easy to navigate (considering the low stakes), but all of us felt that it is often not as easy as we may think.
We were inspired by our own experiences of feeling frustrated from being told that the other party has no preference (often when they actually do). For instance, one of the authors experienced feeling that it is impossible to satisfy her significant other who says that they have no preference, but then seems to not enjoy the restaurant that she ends up choosing (because they did have a preference!). Likewise, when a few of the authors were trying to decide whether to visit a cocktail bar or a beer pub for a night out, no preference communication made the decision even more difficult. Across similar experiences that we each had, it was interesting that our consumption partners had the best intentions to prioritize the other party’s preferences when the other person communicated no preference, and yet this effort was not being fully realized, complicating and ultimately derailing the joint consumption experience.
Q: Assuming participants came (mostly) from the U.S., an individualistic country, do you expect similar results in more collectivistic countries such as China that have different social norms with respect to stating individual preferences?
A: This is a really interesting question because collectivism could impact both parties. As a collectivistic co-consumer, one might feel even more compelled to communicate no preference (rather than explicitly communicate their preference), because they prioritize the relationship and there are norms for deferring to others. For the collectivistic decision maker, the negative effects on decision making might even be amplified, as they might try harder (than individualistic decision makers) to gauge and accommodate the co-consumer’s undisclosed preferences. Relatedly, in one study, we had found that the effects were stronger for decision makers with weaker (vs. stronger) individual preferences. That being said, when decision-makers are exposed to no-preference communication more frequently, it’s also possible that they would be more likely to attribute this expression to social norms, rather than the co-consumer’s unwillingness to share their dissimilar preferences. This is definitely an interesting avenue for future research and it would be neat to see if and how the effects change.
Q: What effect do you think previous experiences with the communication partner have on your results? You tested for the closeness of the relationship and found no effect. But might it also be that the effects of people who have experienced that their partners actually do not have preferences and others who have experienced that their partner primarily chooses not to disclose them cancel each other out?
A: We had a similar intuition that closer (vs. less close) co-consumers or more frequent consumption experiences with co-consumers would attenuate the effects. As you noted, we find that the effects persist across different levels of closeness with the co-consumer. To test this more thoroughly, it might be interesting to recruit real friends, family members, and romantic partners to examine the effects of different types of close relationships.
At the same time, we found the null results of the closeness study insightful since it suggests strong consumers’ beliefs that others actually do have preferences even for relatively low-involvement, everyday decisions. One reason for this might be that such mundane, daily decisions are still context-specific, and preferences might shift across different situations. For example, should one go for a coffee or a bubble tea with their romantic partner? Of course, one may know that their partner has a general preference for coffee or that they truly had no preference last time, but the romantic partner’s preference in that moment may be shaped by their overall level of hunger, tiredness, or mood. Thus, people end up believing that their co-consumer must have a preference in that specific context, which is unknown to the decision maker.
Q: What do you think would be the effect of a longitudinal design with different interaction points between communication partners? Would you expect different results for repeated no-preference communication, potentially in combination with certain justifications for no-preference communications?
A: Thinking about how our findings can be applied to a conversation where decision makers and co-consumers can go back and forth to get more information about their undisclosed preferences is an interesting question. It’s worth noting that sometimes it is difficult for people to continue probing, despite the uncertainty of what the other party prefers. Indeed, the decision maker may feel even more uncomfortable asking follow-up questions to a no-preference communication when the co-consumers are less close to them (such as a coworker or an acquaintance).
If we think about how the conversation would unfold across different interaction points, repeated no-preference communication could send additional or different signals. A co-consumer who repeatedly communicates having no preference might be perceived as even more likely to be hiding their true preferences than a co-consumer who communicates it once. It could also signal disinterest in the consumption activity or lack of effort. It would be interesting for future work to test if there are additional negative downstream consequences in these cases, such as being perceived as not fun or cooperative and making consumers not want to consult with them or even hang out with them anymore. Providing justifications for a no-preference communication (e.g., not being very hungry, being new to the area, and thus not having enough information) could mitigate these effects, but that should apply both to a single no-preference communication and a repeated no-preference communication.
Q: What would you recommend to a restaurant manager who is developing a new marketing campaign? Would an app help or complicate further shared decisions? Do you expect to observe any differences between products versus services?
A: One of the key takeaways from this research is that co-consumers do not anticipate the negative impact of their no-preference communication. That is, they are trying to be agreeable and accommodating, not make the decision more difficult for the decision maker. For managers who wish to maximize consumption experience, they may leverage this relationship motivation and simply tell consumers about the negative relationship consequences of no-preference communication. Being aware of the unexpected negative impact of their actions could serve as an easy intervention tool to facilitate co-consumers’ explicit preference communication.
Another key takeaway from our findings is that decision-makers feel that the decision is more difficult after hearing that the co-consumer has no preference (vs. explicit preference) because they lack information about the co-consumer’s preference to choose an option that works for both parties. This implies that any tools that can provide information about the co-consumer’s actual preferences could help the decision maker: Netflix’s shared profiles are a nice example of how this can easily be implemented. Similarly, managers may benefit from nudging consumers to connect on apps where they could see the co-consumer’s past orders, preferences, or ratings. This information should allow the decision maker to choose what to order more easily and enjoy the consumption experience more.
Q: Suppose I actually have no preference in a particular situation. What would you advise me to do to communicate with my partner so that he or she does not have major decision-making difficulties and is less satisfied with the consumer choice and our relationship?
A: If you find yourself in a situation where you really have no preference and would like to communicate that in a way that reduces the negative impact on the decision maker, we would advise consumers to remember that the other party wants to choose an option that will make you happy. This means that even if you feel truly indifferent about the type of food to eat at a restaurant or the genre of movie that you watch together, the other party will still strive to make a choice that you could also derive utility from. So, even if you have no specific preference in the given set of options, providing some general context about your preferences, such as what type of food you generally enjoy or what genre of movie you watch often, can help the decision maker. Alternatively, “vetoing” some options can be a nice way to demonstrate to the decision maker that you are disclosing at least some preference, allowing the decision maker to choose from a narrowed set.
Extending these approaches, if your goal is to truly let the decision maker choose their most preferred option, we would predict that giving them a legitimate reason to focus on their own utility would also help. For instance, if you tell them that this weekend they should pick the movie that they want to watch so that next weekend you can pick the movie that you want to watch, this could alleviate the decision maker’s desire to balance both parties’ preferences in the current consumption decision.
Read the Full Study for Complete Details
Read the full article:
Nicole You Jeung Kim, Yonat Zwebner, Alixandra Barasch, Rom Y. Schrift (2023), “You Must Have a Preference: The Impact of No-Preference Communication on Joint Decision Making,” Journal of Marketing Research, 60 (1), 52–71. doi:10.1177/00222437221107593