Many variables influence the way we make decisions — whether we’re conscious of them or not. Find out how decision science can help healthcare marketers anticipate the factors that impact the way consumers engage with products.

Imagine you sit down for dinner at a restaurant and start perusing the menu. Do you have the burger with fries, the salad, or the pasta? Whether you know it or not, all kinds of factors get mixed into your thought processes as you navigate this decision: what emotions you are feeling in that moment, how healthy you think each option is, what was the first option you saw, and your goal of eating less red meat. External factors (calorie count, placement on menu) combine with internal factors (perceived healthiness, your emotions) to impact this decision.

Decision science offers a framework to organize all of these influences and understand how choices are made — whether you’re ordering dinner, booking a flight, or deciding whether to bother telling your doctor about that small but constant irritation in your right ear.

What is decision science?

As Director of Decision Science at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, I use scientific models to explain how external and internal factors come together to influence the decisions that consumers make. These models are informed by past research, stemming from economics and psychology, and observations about how people behave and make decisions. Within academia, and more increasingly now in industry, decision scientists use rigorous methodology to test their models in both lab and field settings. Without a deep understanding of human behavior rooted in robust scientific principles and theories, this process of rigorous testing would be like throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks. These principles – including social influences, cognitive factors, emotional forces, heuristics, and biases – help design targeted experimental tests that build upon previous research and theory, letting us expand our understanding of decision making.

One such principle is that people tend to remember things they saw first or last more vividly than what they saw in the middle of a sequence. This is called the serial-position effect. We can apply the serial-position effect to choosing items on the aforementioned menu: a person might be more likely to pick the first item they saw than the other options they considered further down the menu. Savvy restaurateurs use these insights to carefully craft menus, nudging people to pick certain plates over others.

However, what works in the lab might not work in the real world. To test this hypothesis, decision scientists could help these restaurants design a study that chooses two menu items to see how their position on the menu impacts the diners’ choice. For example, they might show Menu A — hamburger at the top, salad at the bottom — to one group of people, and Menu B — salad at the top, hamburger at the bottom — to another group. By evaluating whether people in both groups tended to order the item that was listed at the top of their menu, the restaurant could determine whether their changes had the desired effect.

Applying Decision Science to Healthcare Marketing

Luckily, decision science is useful beyond just dinner selection. In fact, there’s an enormous opportunity to use decision science to help consumers with the numerous decisions that come up daily in the health and wellness space.

Let’s take, for example, the choice between two drugs for an ailment. Patients might look at them one at the time or consider both together. This difference is what decision scientists call joint versus separate evaluation, and has been shown to impact the choices people make. Imagine two drugs: Drug A’s regimen includes 2 pills per dose that you take 4 times daily and is 90 percent effective. Drug B’s regimen includes 3 pills per dose that you take once per day and is 80 percent effective.

While it may seem that the simple decision is whether to take Drug A, Drug B, or neither, the patient’s ultimate choice may vary based on the context in which these options are being evaluated.  

Within a separate evaluation, the decision is either: A) choosing to take Drug A or not take it, or B) choosing to take Drug B or not take it. In this context, previous empirical research would suggest that more people might prefer Drug B because it is difficult to know what 80 percent effectiveness or 90 percent effectiveness means. There is with no point of comparison, so people focus on cues that are familiar, or “easier-to-evaluate,” such as how many pills per dose and frequency per dose. When only looking at Drug A, 4x daily might seem like a hassle, reducing people’s preference for taking it, where Drug B’s 1x daily seems easier and makes it more preferable.

Within joint evaluation, the decision is: do you take Drug A or Drug B? In this case, more people might prefer Drug A, focusing on the effectiveness attribute — 90 percent effective is better than 80 percent. This attribute that was hard to understand, or “difficult-to-evaluate”, in separate evaluation, becomes easier to understand when there is a direct comparison available as shown in the table below:

Drug A Drug B
Pills per dose 2 3
Frequency of Dose 4x daily 1x daily
Effectiveness 90% 80%

This simple framework can be applied to nearly any healthcare campaign. What attributes does the brand want to draw attention to? What properties should people consider when making comparisons? Will other products or services be compared side by side, or separately? By using scientific principles and research from decision science to guide how we choose to frame a product, it becomes possible to highlight the aspects of a drug most relevant to the audience, and impact the choices they make.

Context is Key

Ultimately, decision science helps us shape the context for the decisions consumers face every day, drawing upon decades of economic and psychological research and methodologies to do so. Taking the joint versus separate example, patients might focus on the wrong attributes of a drug based on how the drugs are presented. In healthcare marketing, decision science can help marketers spotlight a product’s most important attributes — helping patients and HCPs make the choice that’s best for their overall wellbeing.

Written by Talya Lazerus, Ph.D.

I received my Ph.D. in Behavioral Decision Research from Carnegie Mellon University, studying decision-making and judgments. My academic research concentrated on how emotions affect choices and perceptions, and my dissertation research focused on how emotions affect calorie perceptions. I also studied how different ways of processing information influences choice, how sentimental value is especially strong for objects or experiences that are firsts, and how emotion perception is shaped by group affiliation. In addition to my academic background, I also had the opportunity to apply my expertise in behavioral research at Airbnb User Experience. Outside of work, I'm an avid board gamer, amateur photographer, and world traveler

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