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An Introduction to the Psychology of Marketing

Oliver Cox

Marketing works when it takes into account the ways in which people really make decisions, not the ways we expect them to.


Marketing is the art of understanding the ways in which people make decisions and then harnessing that understanding to inform the promotion of products and services. 

Among the fundamental premises of effective marketing is the fact that people make most decisions primarily via intuition, emotion, instinct — and only secondarily via logic. In fact, according to sociologist and Harvard Business School emeritus professor Gerald Zaltman, up to 95% of the purchasing decision-making process takes place in the subconscious. 

Unpacking the Brain’s Reasoning: Split-Brain Analysis

Intuitively, our decisions usually feel rational. In most cases, we justify our choices with reasons. However, a great body of research suggests that our decisions aren’t as rational as they may appear.

To help understand part of why this may be, it may be useful to consider the well-known “split-brain” experiments of the 1950s and 60s, spearheaded by scientist Roger Sperry.  

These experiments, which originally involved monkeys and cats, were undertaken with the intention of studying the differences between the brain’s two hemispheres. Surgeons split the brain in two by severing the corpus callosum — the part of the brain that facilitates coordination between the left and right hemispheres. 

Sperry and his team discovered that, when disconnected, the brain’s two hemispheres functioned independently of one another. The split brain actually enabled animals to memorize up to double the amount of information that they were able to when the hemispheres worked in tandem.

Further, Sperry discovered that the two hemispheres are largely used for different purposes — while the left side is used to interpret language, the right is not. Eventually, the procedure was adopted as an experimental treatment on human patients with epilepsy. These patients, like the animals that preceded them, proved to scientists that it is possible to communicate with just one half of the brain intact. In fact, despite the inability of the brain’s distinct hemispheres to communicate, patients exhibited no notable difference in cognitive function than humans with the corpus callosum fully connected and intact.

As an example, researchers might exhibit an image of a snowed-in house to the left eye of split-brain patients (the visual field connected to the right hemisphere of the brain) and an image of a chicken’s foot to the right eye (the visual field connected to the left hemisphere of the brain). They can then ask patients to select an appropriate tool for the image displayed on the left (the snowed-in house) — which correlates to the non-linguistic right side of the brain — by pointing to one of a selection of pictures, which may include images such as a stapler, a hook, a shovel, and a rake. Patients will almost unanimously select the shovel (to clear the snow). 

However, when the patient is asked why she pointed to the shovel, the left, linguistic, side of the brain rationalizes the selection by explaining that it was to clean up after the chickens, since the left side of the brain processed the image of the chickens. 

This theoretical experiment demonstrates that even if the left side of the brain is completely unaware of the actual reason for a choice, it will unfailingly come up with linguistic explanations for the action taken. 

Split-brain experiments, though outlandish in terms of actual application, serve as useful tools in demonstrating that just because a person creates a seemingly rational explanation for a decision does not mean that the decision in itself was guided by logic. In essence, this highlights the propensity of the human mind to attribute a logical layer to decision-making whose primary character is intuitive and emotional.

With this in mind, here are two key aspects of creating messaging that works:

1. Prioritizing Emotion and Purpose Rather Than Function

Marketing should address what something can do and how it will make you feel rather than what it is

For example, if you were trying to market a smartphone camera, you could express how the camera will help you form connections with your family (emotion) by taking amazing family photos (purpose) without necessarily focusing on the specifics of how the camera works (function).

Obviously this strategy has its own limitations, given that leading with emotion is not always appropriate in every context (in business, for instance). However, marketing messages will usually work better when they appeal to how they can positively impact your life or business — rather than when they focus on the specifics of what the product or service is, technically-speaking.

2. Understanding Decision Biases

Human thinking is biased in the way that it processes information, which means that the success of any marketing strategy will depend disproportionately upon the way in which information is presented. Fortunately, researchers have explored human biases and how they affect our thinking. Below are a few examples. 

Loss Aversion

Loss aversion as a concept was introduced by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky in 1979. They found that people mentally weigh the losses or potential losses of any given scenario around 100% more than they weigh the gains or potential gains. This is to say that losing $100 pains us to a greater degree than the joy we feel in gaining $100. In general, people would rather mitigate the risk of a small loss than gamble on the risk of a larger gain. 

In marketing, messages that stress the ability of your service or product to mitigate loss will likely outperform those that stress its ability to facilitate gain. 

Framing

People will respond to a single option or scenario differently according to the way that is framed. For example, when polled, it’s likely that more voters will disagree with the statement “Recreational marijuana should be decriminalized” than will agree with the statement “Recreational marijuana should be criminalized.” Even when two situations have equivalent meanings and outcomes, people respond in accordance with the psychological associations attached with certain language (e.g. the word “criminalization” sounds much harsher than “decriminalization,” thereby impacting voters’ responses). 

This psychological tendency directly impinges on the performance of particular marketing messages. For example, if a marketing solution works 95 times and fails 5 times out of 100, people will be more likely to try it if the seller presents it at being 95% effective rather than failing only 5% of the time.

Anchoring

Anchoring refers to the tendency to use the first cost encountered as a benchmark for any following options. This is to say that a marketing firm could anchor the price of X-dollars / month spent on marketing simply by mentioning such a figure (such as an industry average) in its messaging. Thereafter, everything below this figure would be perceived as comparatively inexpensive.

As such, it’s usually a good idea to lead with the most ambitious (and expensive) options, as they establish a norm — and render cheaper, less ambitious options easier to manage by comparison.

Hopefully it is clear how the above biases — just three among many — shape the way in which people interpret information. It is certainly possible to mislead people deliberately by exploiting these biases. Additionally, given knowledge of these biases, it would be absurd to express information in a way that is knowingly counter-productive. The previous sentence is, itself, an example of framing.

Crafting More Effective Messages

These fundamentals of psychology are more relevant than ever given the immense competition for the attention of consumers. 

To ensure that their messages not only reach target audiences, but guide these audiences toward the desired decisions, marketers must craft their messages to appeal to real, human decision-making processes. These decision-making processes, as we’ve explored, are rooted in intuition and emotion more than they are in logic, and are colored by biases including loss aversion, framing, and anchoring. 

The marketing messages best positioned to achieve their desired ends are those that appeal to purpose and emotion before appealing to function, express mitigated risk, are framed positively, and set the bar for costs up front. 

Oliver Cox

Marketing & Innovation Lead

Originally from the UK, now builds custom strategies to share our clients' visions and stories. Novelist and musician in his spare time.

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