Yale School of Management

Center for Customer Insights

Advancing the frontiers of consumer understanding

Betrayed by the Familiar

When we’re stressed, we instinctively turn to what we know for relief. What if this instinct does more harm than good?

January 2, 2015

You’re running late to an important meeting. You rush out to an early-morning curb and see a nearby cab from a company that you don’t recognize. Two blocks down, another cab idles; it’s from a company you know quite well. So which one do you choose? The first cab is the smarter choice since you’re in a hurry, but research suggests most people would choose the cab down the street, even if it meant risking someone else flagging it first.

We find comfort in the familiar. This is especially true in difficult times, and not for humans alone. “Heightened favoring of familiarity under conditions of stress has been extensively documented in animal research,” Taly Reich, of Yale SOM, writes with three coauthors in a 2011 article. “But whatever it may signal, familiarity is not synonymous with safety,” she continues. “Indeed, sometimes a familiar choice can precisely exacerbate the source of one’s felt pressure.”

Their article, published in Psychological Science and entitled “Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity,” explores how seeking the “safe” choice under stressful conditions and going with what we know can actually lead to greater stress. For example, Reich and her colleagues describe eating unhealthy comfort foods when concerned about obesity—“familiarity favoring that is exactly contrary to the stressor causing it,” they say, with the use of two experiments to test their hypothesis.

In the first of these experiments, participants began by viewing a photo of an individual along with basic biographical information. They were then asked to infer a number of the person’s personal preferences. After that familiarization exercise, these same participants were asked to complete a complicated letter-counting task on passages of text; it was their choice whether they read two or three passages. One group had no time pressure, and another group had only four minutes to complete the task. Further, in each of these groups, whether timed or not, half of the participants were told that the designer of the longer, three-passage option was the person about whom they’d read earlier.

The researchers found that those who were both under time pressure and familiar with the three-passage designer chose that option for the letter-counting task over the shorter two-passage option designed by somebody they did not know. “Thus, time pressure increased choice of a familiar option, despite evidence that this option might actually exacerbate such pressure,” write Reich and her colleagues. When asked why they chose the longer task, participants who were familiar with the designer mentioned safety- and comfort-related rationales; they also, in comparison to those who chose only two passages, found the task more stressful and difficult.

A second experiment supported these results. Under a similar division—time pressure and no time pressure, a familiar choice or no familiar choice—those who were under time pressure and given a familiar option chose what they knew, even though that choice was manifestly less favorable. (In this case, participants were pilot-testing computer games, and the results demonstrated that those who stuck with the familiar and more difficult game performed objectively worse.) “We again observed a perverse flight to familiarity,” write the researchers.

The results clearly outlined how time pressure and familiar options can, together, distort decision-making; specifically, stress can magnify the attractiveness of a familiar option, even when choosing that option will only serve to increase the stress.

At this time of year—holiday shopping, New Year’s resolutions, traffic on the roads and in the airports—it’s important for consumers to be aware of the comfort trap. As pressures ramp up, inclinations may lean toward the familiar, for better and for worse. It’s worth pausing. Take a moment to focus on the objective evidence. And when you step outside, hail the cab nearby.