Book Review: The Illusion of Choice

Autumn 2023

There's no shortage of books about behavioural science these days, but few of them are as practically oriented as this book by Richard Shotton. If you want to understand how choices are made, how cognitive biases affect those choices, and how your organisation can use that (which is not necessarily as Machiavellian as it sounds!) then this book is essential reading. As Shotton says, “Businesses are in the business of behaviour change.”, so this is something that should be relevant for all of us.

Behavioural science for marketing

The book delves deep into the implications of behavioural science in the realm of marketing, presenting a comprehensive exploration of various psychological biases and how they influence consumer choices.

Shotton's writing style is engaging, making the book an easy read. He uses real-life examples to ground the theory, ensuring that everything is concrete and free from jargon. The book is also well-researched, and based in most cases on academic research.

The book is subtitled “the 16½ psychological biases that influence what we buy” (a clever illustration of the power that a bit of intrigue has to tickle our imaginations!). Here’s the full list:

  • Habit Formation

  • Make it Easy

  • Make it Difficult

  • The Generation Effect

  • The Keats Heuristic

  • Concreteness

  • Precision (this is the ½!)

  • Extremeness Aversion

  • Denominator Neglect

  • The Need to Experiment

  • Framing

  • Fairness

  • Freedom of Choice

  • The Red Sneakers Effect

  • The Halo Effect

  • The Wisdom of Wit

  • The Peak-End Rule

As you can see, many of the points might seem at first glance contradictory. The devil is often in the detail of what it is you want to achieve. Shotton mostly talks about examples from advertising and marketing more generally, but actually many of these principles are important when it comes to designing customer experiences, so try to read it with that in mind.

The book is structured so that each chapter focuses on a specific bias, supported by scientific evidence. However, some people have pointed out that not all the experiments cited are peer-reviewed, and some might lack the rigor expected from academic studies. This has led to a mix of opinions, with some praising the book for its insights and others critiquing it for its reliance on weak academic work.

Compared to The Choice Factory

An obvious question is how this book differs from Shotton’s previous work “The Choice Factory”. They’re both great books, but I think I’d probably recommend The Illusion of Choice as a better starting point for someone who hadn’t read either of them. I find it a little more straightforward, and more focused on the practicalities of how you might think about using some of the principles he covers.

One of the book's strengths lies in its real-world application. Shotton does an excellent job of simplifying complex topics, making them accessible to a broader audience. He provides actionable tips, backed by research, that can be applied in many settings.

In conclusion, "The Illusion of Choice" is a thought-provoking exploration of the intersection between psychology and marketing. While it may not be as in-depth or as rigorous as something like Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, it offers valuable insights and practical tips that many will find beneficial. Whether you're in the field of marketing, interested in customer psychology, or just a curious reader, this book provides a fresh perspective on the choices we make and the unseen forces that influence them.

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research