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Seven cognitive shortcuts that dictate what people buy and what they don’t

Seven cognitive shortcuts that dictate what people buy and what they don't


Seven cognitive shortcuts that dictate what people buy and what they don’t


Your customers are faced with an overwhelming selection of products and services, each claiming to be better than the last.

To evaluate their merit on features and specifications alone is often beyond the cerebral capacity (and patience) of most of us, and therefore we are guided by what we’d describe as gut-feel, instinct or defaults – or what behavioural scientists would describe as cognitive biases.

There are over 170 of these biases informing our behaviours, from ‘anchoring’ to ‘zero price effect’, and for better or worse they subconsciously steer us towards the products and services we let into our lives. We’ve sifted through the most relevant to marketing and grouped them into seven shortcuts that could be steering people towards or away from your brand.

READ MORE: Download our report to find out how you can leverage cognitive biases to improve the effectiveness of your marketing.

1. People buy what they know

The science behind it: Status quo, loss aversion

From the bread you buy to where you bank, it is highly probable that you have used the same products and services repeatedly for years, despite better options emerging. Why? Because as humans we are prone to going with the default option and do not like to disrupt the status quo.

If it has worked for us in the past, hasn’t killed us, has satisfied our tastes, why go through the time it takes to research an alternative and take a punt on something new? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the line goes. Or as one clever marketing team interpreted it: no one ever got fired for choosing IBM.

2. People buy with their heart, not their head

The science behind it: Temptation bias, priming, bizarreness effect

We are acutely aware of emotional hooks in advertising, but often can’t help but fall for their appeal. Brands constantly prime us with emotional imagery, humour and unusual executions that stand out in the category. Cadbury’s Gorilla is a great example, leaving many perplexed as to how and why it sold more chocolate bars.

The bizarreness effect explains part of this and other phenomena like Toyota’s Prius outselling it’s Honda counterpart by five times. Some 57% of Prius buyers stated their main reason for choosing it was because ‘it makes a statement about me’, proving the important role a bizarre or distinctive aesthetic can play.

3. People buy the simplest option

The science behind it: Chunking, goal dilution

Given we are overloaded by choice, sometimes the brand that makes it easiest for us wins by easing the cognitive burden of choice.

An experiment using jam showed this effect in its simplest form. It took place at an upscale food market, with a display table set up with 24 varieties of gourmet jam on one day, and six varieties on another. While the large display attracted more interest, shoppers who saw it were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.

Caspa, Simba and Eve can partly credit their growth to incredibly simple offerings with little deliberation required.

4. People buy what the crowd buy

The science behind it: Herd behaviour

We are influenced by those we liken ourselves to, and this creates a good shortcut to purchase decisions because when people like us put faith in a brand it provides a reassurance that it is a good choice.

This is why review and rating platforms like Trustpilot have grown in influence and often find themselves at the heart of a business’s homepage (when their ratings tell the desired story, of course). Whether you are buying insurance or shoes, or selling your house, you’ll increasingly find peer ratings and reviews in prominent places.

5. People buy what will gratify them now

The science behind it: Hyperbolic discounting, current moment bias

Behavioural science says we value today more than tomorrow, and judging by the government’s recent intervention in our pension contributions (or previous lack thereof) behavioural science is probably right.

There are two simple ways retailers can (and do) exploit this – finance and delivery. Brands are increasingly offering credit and interest-free spending options; note again the increasing prominence of credit providers such as Klarna and PayPal, accommodating our preference for sticking our new wares on the ‘never never’.

Faster and faster delivery times also pander to our lack of patience, for example, offering two hour delivery.

6. People buy what makes sense in context

The science behind it: Anchoring, decoy effect, framing, distinction bias, scarcity

Context and how the options in front of us are presented influence the way we buy. The first item we’ve seen often acts as an anchor, setting a price in mind that we compare all others against.

Unbeknownst to us some options might have been placed there as a decoy, to make others seem better value than they actually are. And some just seem better purely because they are in a comparison set.

If you’ve shopped for a laptop, the 2.3GHz dual-core processor that seemed perfectly adequate before suddenly pales in comparison when side-by-side with the 2.4GHz quad-core. Thanks for that ‘helpful’ comparison table, Apple.

7. People buy into brands that match their ethics and values

The science behind it: Commitment bias

For years we have put money into businesses that, on the whole, we probably don’t really like that much, but to which haven’t had an alternative. A boom of disruptive startups in almost every category from utilities to banking, telecoms to transport, has presented us with new businesses that are just as concerned as we are about issues like gender equality and sustainability, and some of the old guard are catching on and finding their own sense of purpose.

The commitments and pledges they publicly make to these causes serve both to highlight their intentions and to make them more accountable in seeing them through.

Greg Copeland is a behavioural strategist at The Behaviours Agency.

Download our report to find out how you can leverage cognitive biases to improve the effectiveness of your marketing.


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