Marketers Need to Know 6 Things About Human Psychology

By Emily Shea, VP/Partner & Executive Creative Director

June 17, 2014

The best marketers have a secret: they’re also lifelong students of psychology.

Trends come and go, but basic human emotions and behaviors stay relatively the same. That’s why the most successful marketers aren’t the ones who come up with the brightest ideas–they’re the ones who truly understand the way people think.

Specifically, marketers understand that people don’t always think rationally. We use emotion to make decisions, we allow perceptions to trump facts and we let our social constructs influence our thoughts and behaviors.

The question is: how does all that factor into the sales process?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at some cognitive biases, or common thought patterns people subconsciously use to make inferences about other people or situations. These are some of the mindsets the average marketing message is up against—for better or for worse.

As marketers, it’s our job to not only understand thought patterns like these, but to embrace them, and to plan our messaging accordingly.


Bias #1: Escalation of Commitment

The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on cumulative prior investment (even in the face of new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong).


We’re hardwired to take actions that justify our past actions.

This is why it’s better to allow people to purposefully opt in to an e-mail list, for example, rather than secretly adding them as a result of some unrelated action. If they were the ones to make that commitment in the first place, they’re much more likely to honor it later by opening and reading the e-mails (thereby justifying to themselves that the decision to join the list was the right one).


Bias #2: The Illusion of Truth Effect

The tendency to believe information to be correct the more often we’re exposed to it.


Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. I’m not talking about repeating your phone number three times at the end of a commercial (although, sadly, that probably works), but reiterating and summarizing your points to help drive them home. When people see information repeated, they tend to perceive subsequent mentions as confirmations of the earlier ones.


Bias #3: The Mere Exposure Effect

The tendency to like things merely because of familiarity with them.


In marketing, it’s important to find exciting new ways to spin messaging for consumers. But regardless of the approach, all messages must be anchored in something that’s readily familiar to the target audience—whether it’s an object, an emotion, a thought or a scene.

Maybe it’s a parent shuttling kids to sports events, a couple settling into the couch for a movie or a busy mom looking for something quick for dinner. Or maybe it’s something the target audience aspires to, such as a dream vacation, or something from their past, like a brand they grew up on.

Whatever this element is, it has to be something the audience feels immediately (and subconsciously) connected to.


Bias #4: The Pseudocertainty Effect

The tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes.


People aren’t always motivated to go after improvement, but they certainly don’t want things to get worse. Investing in new products or services always comes with some level of risk—financial risk, the risk that it won’t work out as intended or simply the risk that the buyer will regret their decision.

The question is: is it risk for the sake of life improvement (potentially seen as unnecessary) or for protection and self-preservation (seen as responsible)?

Sometimes, you can build a stronger sales message by flipping your focus from the potential positives customers could gain to the potential negatives they could avoid. In a recent food ad, for example, we focused much more on what was not in the food (artificial ingredients, GMOs, additives) than what was in it.


Bias #5: The Rhyme as Reason Effect

Rhyming statements are perceived as more truthful.


This might sound silly, but using rhyming words in marketing copy is a long-time trick that’s actually been shown to add trust.

In 1998, Psychology Today wrote about a study in which participants were given a list of phrases that rhymed and phrases that didn’t—like “Woes unite foes” vs. “Misfortunes unite foes.” They found that students believed the rhyming phrases more accurately described human behaviors.


Bias #6: The Status Quo Bias

The tendency to like things to stay relatively the same. The current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss.


Recognize that change is difficult for most people, especially when it’s suggested by others. Our natural reaction is to defend our current state—we’re doing just fine the way we are.

Even if we’re promised to end up in a better place, we have to take on risk to get there, and there’s still the possibility that we could end up worse off. (Even if it’s just because we wasted the time exploring the new option.)


What are some other ways you could use knowledge of these biases to improve a marketing campaign?


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