Global Trends 2020

Overwhelmed by life? What changes in consumer behaviours can tell us about navigating modern life

This year’s Global Trends survey is a potent reminder of the pressures humans now feel. While our brains may be the driving force behind our evolving world, we are curiously little changed from our cave-dwelling ancestors: designed to assess just enough of our surroundings to keep us alive, and ignore the terabytes of information that come at us daily from a multitude of sources. The volume of information and choices can overwhelm. But exactly how does this struggle play itself out? What – if anything – are we doing to find shortcuts through the maelstrom of everyday life?

There is plenty of evidence of the challenges of modern living:

  • The majority of us feel the world is moving too fast: eight in ten (79%)
    agree this is the case. Across the world, this figure never drops below 60%.
  • Eight in ten of us agree there is so much contradictory information that it is hard to know who or what to trust.
  • About half (54%) of us claim to be overwhelmed by the choices we have to make in our lives (but 42% of us disagree).

Our response is a tension between autonomy and guidance-seeking. Three-quarters (76%) say we want to get more autonomy in our lives, and depend less and less on any external authority. But 69% also say that today we need guides and mentors more than we need politicians (a view that is generally more prevalent in developing than developed countries). This tension between autonomy and guidance is a key area for politicians and brands to focus on.

So far, so existential. But these tensions are not limited to our own internal angst. Interestingly, they are also played out in our behaviours as consumers – and in a way that is increasingly evident. To take an example: in our 2014 report half (49%) said that we often feel overwhelmed by all of the choices we have as consumers. By this report, the figure had risen to three-in-five (59%).38

In response, and symptomatic of that tension between autonomy and guidance, some 32% of us globally would rather have a company or expert choose product and service options for us, than make the decisions ourselves. Sixty-one per cent disagree.

Consumers in emerging markets, where purchase options may be proliferating most rapidly, tend to be more likely to say that they would rather a company or expert makes the choice for them, than in established markets. Notwithstanding, across all markets, even if a clear majority are in favour of owning our own purchasing decisions, a significant portion are willing to abdicate our rights to make our own choices, and of course good retailers carefully curate what they offer us.

We can also see a new relationship to information when it comes to purchase decision-making. Historically the only information that we had available to help our decision-making was that which was available to us in the shop, plus advertising, offline guides and our own prior experiences. We often relied on mental shortcuts like habit and brand to guide our decisions – and still do for some categories like chocolate.

But, for other purchases the ground has shifted. Information seeking has always been part of decision-making, but apps make this more and more frictionless and abundant. 73% of us look at online reviews when not confident about purchase decisions, up from 69% three years ago. Moreover, 76% of us now say that if a product gets a lot of good reviews, we will try it – a majority view held in every country, although again emerging markets tend to be more positive here. For purchases that warrant prior research, peer review has a growing role in the decision-making process – albeit in a way that is tinged with suspicion for some.

So what does this shift in our purchase decision-making behaviours tell us about how we are responding to the modern world? Firstly, it highlights our need to simplify our lives by finding new shortcuts to decision-making. This is potentially emphasised by the fact that two-thirds of us wish our lives were more simple. Brands and governments can both help here.

Secondly, by making manifest the tension between autonomous decision-making, trust, and the influence of ‘the other’, it illustrates how hard establishing those shortcuts actually is. How can we make our own decisions when we don’t know which information sources to trust to inform them? But how can we follow the advice of others if, again, we don’t know who to trust? Hence we become caught in a vicious circle that can rapidly become overwhelming.


All over the world people are experiencing tension between autonomy and expert (and non-expert) guidance. New technologies can provide support with ‘favourites’ mechanisms and algorithms that make suggestions based on previous purchases, and functions that help us to make decisions more easily. These let us preserve our sense of autonomy while also aiming to cut out some of the ‘noise’.

But, equally, there is evidence that the amount of information around us does not always make it easier for us to live our lives. The proliferation of fake reviews online, as well as the rise of the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, raise an interesting question – will we reach a point where we no longer trust any data source? What happens if we do? It is perhaps for this reason that 83% of us say that today it is vital to trust one’s own intuition/judgement when making decisions.

For anyone working from the customer experience industry to government policy, it has never been more important to understand the combination of influences39 that drive our final decisions. As the range of influences increases, getting a deeper understanding of the weight of each factor in consumer decisions becomes more and more important.

Fiona Moss
Director, Ipsos MORI | @IpsosMORI

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