The Science of Influencing Customer Behavior

Why do we buy?

Understanding the psychology of buying is crucial for a marketer. 

It’s also important for us, to understand marketing tricks companies use to make us buy more.

Logic vs Intuition

A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10 together.

The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The answer is simple, isn’t it?

Most of the people to whom this question is presented answered that the ball costs 10 cents.

This intuitive response was also true of most students at the elite universities of Princeton and Harvard.

But this answer is incorrect.

The ball costs $0.05 ($1.05 for the bat plus $0.05 for the ball equals $1.10).

Our brain intuitively led us to give an incorrect answer to this simple calculation.

Instead of doing mathematics, we resort to our gut feeling.

Doing the actual calculation is much harder for our brain, and most of us don’t bother because the 10-cent answer feels just right.

Daniel Kahneman, the author of the best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” refers to two systems of the mind.

System 1 integrates perception and intuition.

Kahneman says, “It never sleeps, it’s quick, processes all the information in parallel, and is effortless, associative and slow-learning. It is made for fast, automatic, intuitive actions without thinking”.

In contrast, system 2 is slow, works step by step, and takes up a lot of energy because it is effortful but has the benefit of being flexible.

A helpful metaphor for how these two systems work together is to see system 1 as an autopilot and system 2 as a pilot.

the psychology of buying, why we buy

The pilot handles the tasks that require flexible decision-making, such as take-off and landing, while the autopilot handles an action that can be done automatically.

For marketers, understanding these two systems is crucial.

The Framing Effect

Individuals tend to make different choices based on how a decision problem is presented or interpreted.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did an interesting experiment.[1]

The researchers asked the participants [152] which was the best option if a virus would spread in the U.S., which was expected to kill 600 people.

They had to choose between A and to combat the disease.

FramingTreatment ATreatment B
PositiveSaves 200 livesA 1/3 chance of saving all 600 people, 2/3 of saving no one
Negative400 will dieA 1/3 chance that no one will die, a 2/3 probability that 600 will die

In the first case where the situation is presented with a positive frame, 72% choose option A. Only 28% of people chose treatment B.

When it comes to benefits, people want to be sure. This is the benefit of this program: 200 people will live. 

The second group of participants [155] was given the cover story of problem 1, but it was presented with a negative frame.

In this case, program B was more popular as 78% chose it.

When it comes to losses, people will take risks to avoid losses.

This experiment shows how we frame choices. Thinking about the benefits or losses influences our decisions.

For example, medications focus more on benefits.

They tell you that the medication has 70% effectiveness rather than telling you they have a 30% failure.

The background indirectly affects everything we do without us being aware of it.

If we look at the two small squares in the center, it seems as if they are lying in front of larger ones.

The small squares seem to have different shades of grey.

the framing effect

But they don’t.

Objectively, they are identical, but subjectively there is a clear difference.

The frames in the background change the perception.

The autopilot provides the frame, and the pilot focuses on the figure.

Together they create how we experience the world and build the basis for our decision-making.

The framing effect is crucial in marketing.

For example, how does a brand influence the product experience?

Brands operate as the background, framing the perception and the experience of the products.

This framing effect of brands is not marketing hype; it increases the perceived value and the willingness to pay a premium price–even for objectively identical products.

The Power of Peers

There are many tricks to make people buy more.

But, do you know which is the most effective trick?

It’s your friend, your cousin, or even a stranger.

What the other person says, matters to us, a lot.

We watch what others are doing and change our own actions and behaviors.

In 2007 the Washington Post made an interesting experiment. Joshua Bell was playing with a $3.5 million violin on a subway during the morning rush in Washington D.C. Most of the people walked right by and ignored him.

All day, he had made only $32.17.

In another situation, they would be happy to pay $100 to $200 to see him perform.

One person was in a hurry and ignored the performer, and so was the person behind him, and so on. And during the morning the whole mass was brushing past a world-class performer.

Standing out, or differing from everyone else, causes us great discomfort.

When you show people a group picture on Facebook, they’ll first see themselves.

Then they’ll analyze how they appear compared to others. Are they making the right impression? Are others looking at them positively?

It shows we’re social species, we asses our behavior in relation to everyone else.

We’ve gotta have it

Marketers know the rule: People want what other people want.

It is such a powerful rule that sometimes we rely on purchasing a product based on what others are saying even if it’s a complete stranger.

A survey by brightlocal showed that:

97% of consumers looked online for local businesses in 2017, with 12% looking for a local business online every day.

85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations

Their opinions are so convincing that we know that at least 25% of them are fake reviews written by employees or friends. We want to trust these reviews even though we are a little uncertain.

A simple example is “best-seller lists”.

Let’s say you want to buy a book.

You hesitate to spend $25 on a book that may not be worth it later. But wait, you see “It’s a New York Times Bestseller with X million copies sold”.

Subconsciously you think: If so many people have bought this book then it must be good.

Followed by: If so many people are reading this book, would I be left out of the conversation if I don’t read it too?

This isn’t a fortunate accident for the publishing industry.

The main reason the best sellers list exist isn’t just to know the number of sales but to make us think these books have been “pre-approved”. To suggest that everybody else is reading it.

Other industries use best-seller or popular lists because they’re very persuasive:

  • Best-selling cosmetic products
  • Most popular TV shows
  • Best toys for 2017

Now, let’s see iTunes. It has multiple lists such as:

  • What’s Popular
  • What they’re watching
  • What we’re listening to
  • Top songs, top albums, top movies

Here, Apple is trying to imply that its team of experts has spent the past month parsing through thousands of songs to show their chosen picks.

Companies may pay big money to put their music/movie/show on the front page.

Now a two-tier system is possible to happen.

First, due to big exposure and from the fact people consider them as “best”, among all others end up making the top list.

And once there is a bestseller, we think: What do others know more than me? Am I missing out on something?!

A study published in Science magazine shows just how well this can work.

The researchers invited 27 teenagers to visit a website where they could download samples for free.

They told to some teens what others had downloaded. And these teens downloaded the same songs as their friends did.

The second part of the study divided the students into 8 groups. The researchers found that teens not only choose pre-downloaded songs, but these songs became a “hit”.

All was clear: The song would become a “hit” solely on whether it was perceived as already being popular. 

It may not seem such a bad thing, but look at it this way: If we buy something just for being popular then we miss out on great products.

Researchers used fMRI to see what was going on in the teenager’s brain. They had 12 seventeen-year-old teens and they had to rate 15-second clips.

The results showed when the participants liked a popular song had activity in the caudate nucleus (a section of the brain linked to rewards).

However when teens preferred a song that was unpopular, an area of the brain linked to anxiety lit up.

Researchers concluded that this “mismatch anxiety” motivates people to shift their preferences toward consensus.

The illusion of popularity

Most brands aren’t market leaders.

So, how can they stand out?

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The company is not number one in one category, but it might be in sub-categories.

They can say:

  • X number of products sold weekly
  • We’re the fastest-growing company
  • 8 out of ten people love this. 

The goal is to create the illusion of popularity.

On October 23, 2001, Apple launched the iPod. [3]

The competitors all had bland, black earphones.

Apple’s problem was that its logo wasn’t visible. And no one could tell you were listening to an iPod just by seeing your black headphones.

So what did Apple do?

Well, this…

ipad ad, ipad presentation 2003

White earbuds made the iPod stand out and may have helped create a perception that more individuals owned iPods than actually did.

When social proof backfires

We saw how the behavior of others influences consumers. 

Negative social proof is used in such a way that it has the opposite effect to that intended.

The evidence for this tendency comes from an experiment conducted in 2003 by Cialdini and his colleagues. [4]

The experiment took place in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Back then, a ton of petrified wood was being stolen each month.

The park rangers reacted by placing signs that declared:

“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

But were these signs effective? Since they emphasized the number of thieves, the psychologists worried they encouraged more stealing.

The researchers created two signs and secretly placed marked pieces of petrified wood along visitor pathways.

The first sign which warned of the impact of stealing stated:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” And it was accompanied by a picture of a visitor stealing a piece of wood, with a red circle over his head.

The second sign that showed how widespread this improper behavior was, stated:

“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” and was accompanied by a photo of people stealing pieces of wood.

The theft rate in the control situation with no sign was 2.92%.

The second sign resulted in 7.92% more theft, while the first sign resulted in less theft (1.67%) than the control condition.

That means a sign designed to reduce crime boosted it.

In Cialdini’s words, “This wasn’t a crime prevention strategy; it was a crime promotion strategy.”

Flowery descriptions

A study by Brian Wansink of Cornell University presented menus either with descriptive labels or with just the name (e.g., red beans with rice).

The question was whether the descriptive modifications would impact the perceived taste of the food.

The result was that the descriptive labels resulted in more orders and led participants to rate those foods as tasting better than the identical foods with a generic name.

People perceive descriptions such as ‘tender grilled chicken’ to provide a higher value than just ‘grilled chicken.’

Value-oriented language can not only add perceived value but can also influence perceived product performance.

In a messaging test on meat packaging, the signal “75% lean” had a more positive impact than “25% fat”.


Price plays a major role in a purchase decision because of its impact on the customer’s budget.

Customers tend to perceive higher prices with a higher quality of the product.

A Ferrari wouldn’t be a Ferrari if it cost only $50,000.

The price increase will lead to higher sales.

A good example is Chivas Regal. In 1970 they were experiencing low sales.

So, to reposition the brand, they designed a new label and raised the price by 20%. The whiskey itself remained the same. And with the new price, the sales rose significantly.

Media Shop Group, one of the leading direct-response TV networks in Europe, introduced a new cosmetic accessory for 29.99 Euros.

The management pulled the product because the sales were extremely low.

A few weeks later they relaunched it with a new price of 39.99 Euros.

And this proved to be a huge success as the sales skyrocketed in a matter of days.

Price as an indicator of quality

A low price might raise concerns about the quality because we have all heard the expression, “You get what you paid for.”

On the other side, high price = high quality is used as a rule of thumb.

When do consumers assess a product primarily based on the price? It’s when they are uncertain about the quality or when the product is new.

The Placebo Effect

An interesting study showed that we feel better if we take expensive pills.

Researchers at MIT made up a phony painkiller and invited the participants to try it. [5]

Some brochures showed $2.50 per pill, while the others showed $0.10.

The participants waited for 15 minutes to take effect (in theory). Then, they were given electrical shocks to test their resistance to pain.

The Results showed that in high-priced conditions, 85% of people experienced reduced pain. But only 61% of people did when given the cheap pill.

“Pay what you want” pricing

On October 9, 2007, the English alternative band Radiohead started an interesting experiment: Instead of pricing their music conventionally, they would let the fans pay as much as they wanted to download their latest 10-song album- in Rainbows. [6]

This type of pricing came after years of frustration with traditional distribution.

And this caused fierce debate in the music business.

On one side, this experiment was considered important in an industry shaken by the shift from physical to virtual delivery.

On the other side, traditionalists saw the “pay as you wish” method as a surrender to the pirates – Consequently bringing the music industry down.

The program ended on October 29, 2007, and Radiohead had clearly won.

More than 1.2 million people visited the site.

Even though only 38% of the fans paid for it, they spent $2.26 per album on average, which probably generated more than traditional selling.

Some fans even paid $12-$20.

Why Pay More?

At first, this method of pricing doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would anyone pay for something when they can get it for free?

According to Psychology Today, there are two reasons:

First, it conveys confidence. You are basically saying “We are so sure about the quality of our product that you will pay for it.”

Second, it empowers the consumer. The company allows you to weigh the value and pay a fair price.

Now you might think it only works in the music industry when you have a huge fanbase.

But, different types of businesses have tried this method, and it has worked.

For decades, theatres in the US and England have offered “pay what you can” for certain performances.

An article from The Guardian explained how “Metro Cafe” is using this business model.

Metro Cafe is located in a corner of Santa Monica (one of the most expensive cities in California).

They started this as an experiment for only 30 days. And they matched the profits of the last month, so they continued with the PWYW method.


Anchoring is a cognitive bias for an individual to rely too heavily on an initial piece of information when deciding.

A perfect example of this, is again, Apple.

In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, and after showing his features, he asked: What should we price it at?

If you listen to the pundits, we will price it at under $1000.

Then a giant $999 came upon his presentation screen.

He let it sink in before saying, ‘I am thrilled to announce to you that the iPad pricing starts not at $999 but at just $499’. On-screen, a falling $499 crushed the $999 price.

What Jobs did so well was not to compare the iPad price with that of a MacBook – he compared it with the expectation of its own price.

This anchoring mechanism by which price perception can be influenced by contrasting with other prices it’s very effective.

Many studies have shown that it often makes sense to start with a higher price to set an anchor for a cheaper option when selling products.

The value-cost relation

We value things based on the options available. When we are thirsty, and the only thing available is a warm cola, we value that option. 

But, it automatically reduces the value of cola if we also have a cold beer.

Most people don’t know what to take unless they see it in context.

We don’t know what car we want until we see what someone else has.

We don’t know which are the best speakers until we hear another set of speakers that sound better.

In his book Predictably Irrational (2010), Dan Ariely explained this principle by giving an example from the offer of the Economist.

Each price was for a one-year subscription:

  • subscription – US $59. 00
  • Print Subscription – US $125
  • Print & Web subscription – US $125

We aren’t sure that the first option is the best deal. But we surely know the third one is better than the second.

Did the experts at the Economist make a typing mistake? Or were they trying to show you the third option is a better deal?

Dan gave these options to 100 students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and the results were:

1. Internet-only for $59 – 16 Students

2. Print-only for $125 – 0 students

3. Print and internet for $125 – 84 students

He made the following experiment giving only two choices:

1. Internet-only for $59

2. Print and internet for $125

Would the students react the same as before?

This time, the first option became popular as 68 students chose it, up from 16 before.

And only 32 students chose the second option, down from 84 before.

Let’s do the math: In the second scenario, the value of the subscriptions is $8012 compared with $11,444 from the first scenario.

Having three options rather than two increased by 43% in value.

By changing the structure of the offer, the decisions for the web-only option changed dramatically.

This works because the value is fundamentally relative.

The estate agents use this. They show you a house very similar to what you will buy but a bit more expensive. Later they show you a house that is a little worse.

You are more likely to buy the first house.

Sensory Marketing

It’s a type of marketing that appeals to all senses concerning the brand.


It’s the most important sense in deciding because 70% of the information we get is from vision.

The choice of color, form, and shape of the product is crucial in marketing.

The primary colors are divided into two groups: 

– Warm (Red, Orange, Yellow)

– Cool (Green, Blue, Purple).

The red color is considered to be a highly exciting one.

It stimulates appetite and is more attractive to the human eye.

Physiologically, the vision of the red color increases heart rate, and it remains in the memory longer.

The orange color has similar but less intensive properties than the red color. And it is more popular among children and teenagers.

The yellow color is soothing, lively, and cheerful.

Warm colors are often used in creative professions (transport, energy, media, and creative agencies).

Blue and Purple have relaxing qualities. And are used in technology, healthcare, and finance industries.

Green is associated with good health and serenity. It tends to be popular in the home and technology industries.


It represents 12% of human perception.

The sounds can activate the emotional part of the brain. Thus, it is possible to use it as a tool to influence purchasing behavior.

Many companies have their own jingles – For example, Microsoft Windows with its startup and shutdown sound.

They can also use music in the stores to increase the staff’s productivity.

Studies have shown that the rhythm of the music affects the consumer’s perception of time and spending.

In restaurants, a slow music pace leads to people staying longer, increasing the average spent by 29%.

Bars tend to use loud music because it leads to increased drink consumption.


A human being can remember over 10,000 different scents.

In addition, a global study shows that 80% of men and 90% of women associate a scent with a particular memory.


If you want to create a dynamic environment that is full of energy and provoking, you can use an aphrodisiac scent (heavy flowery, deep fruity).

This is suitable for bars, cosmetics, and jewelry shops.

The purpose is to create a specific experience with the brand – The willingness of the customer to buy increases when using the proper scent.

A sensory experience – Starbucks 

Starbucks is one of the largest chains of coffee shops, with around 15 million visitors per day.

Since the 1980s Starbucks developed a strategy to deliver a sensory experience and strengthen its brand.

The interiors use green and yellow colors and pleasant lighting to offer a pleasant visual experience.

Music is chosen with care and precision by the Starbucks Team.

In addition, the smell of freshly ground coffee and comfortable chairs complete the five senses.

Marketing Manipulation by Drug Companies

Using direct-to-consumer advertising (DTC), pharmaceutical companies can persuade buyers to request drugs when they don’t even have any condition.

According to a CBS News HealthWatch, based on scholarly publications, nearly a third of adults discussed drugs they saw on TV with their doctor.

In 1999, DTC advertising on behalf of big pharma amounted to $791 million, while in 2016, it went to $5 billion.

In a survey made by the FDA, 58% of physicians thought DTC advertising was making the drug seem better than it is. [7]

The Case of Rezulin

The fact that one-third of users started a conversation with their doctor just because they looked at an ad and that half of them received a prescription is quite alarming. It indicates that many people are getting drugs for diseases they may not have.

Look, if someone takes medicine to prevent a cold that might not be harmful, what if one takes a prescription for diabetes when one doesn’t suffer from it?

Michael Kamins, the author of “Marketing Manipulation,” shares the case of Rezulin.

Rezulin was a prescription drug for diabetes, but many users were taking it without having diabetes.

The problem was that taking Rezulin, especially for those who didn’t need to, was linked to 90 liver failures and 63 deaths.

Why were so many people taking this drug if they didn’t need it?

The answer lies in marketing manipulation.

Rezulin was advertised as a drug that could potentially prevent diabetes. And many people have been categorized as “pre-diabetic.”

In a pre-launch advertisement for Rezulin, they said: “Is it possible to specifically treat or prevent the insulin resistance associated with type 2 diabetes?”

Later in a press release about the drug, they claimed:

Rezulin® is the first anti-diabetes drug designed to target insulin resistance…

Rezulin® is the first drug to work at the cellular level to improve insulin resistance, directly enhancing the effects of circulating insulin…

On March 21, 2000, the FDA forced the manufacturers to pull Rezulin off the market.

But it is easy to see why Rezulin was the fastest-selling drug in history.

In just four months, they reached $76 million in sales.

Marketing Manipulation by Tobacco Corporations

The UK banned all TV tobacco commercials on 1 August 1965, the USA on 1 January 1971, and Australia in December 1989.

Despite heavy anti-smoking campaigns, the tobacco industry has had an increase in its profits during these 15 years.

In 2016 their profits combined were $35 billion.

The governments raise taxes, make laws that prohibit consumption in closed environments, and ban tobacco advertising.

So, how do tobacco companies stand out?

With the TV ban, Tobacco companies have become more sophisticated.

Philip Morris (Who owns Marlboro), and Reynolds Tobacco Company (which owns Camel) funnel a huge percentage of their marketing budget into subliminal marketing.

For example, Philip Morris finances bar owners to use specially designed furniture, ashtrays, suggestive tiles, and many other subliminal symbols to convey the essence of Marlboro.

To ensure the highest exposure, Marlboro also markets clothing (gloves, boots, jackets, jeans, watches, bags) to invoke associations with the brand.

In Malaysia, Benson & Hedges has sponsored coffee shops to sell their products with their logo.


One of the best ways to advertise tobacco is by sponsoring NASCAR and Formula 1 cars.

Formula 1 is a popular sport mostly in Europe. And its popularity makes a great opportunity for advertising Tobacco. Why? When your TV ads are banned which is the best way to convey that feeling of risk, cool, dynamism, and youth than to sponsor a car race?

tobacco advertising, marlboro ferrari, formula 1

They paint the Ferrari car on Marlboro red. They dress the driver and the crew in bright red jumpsuits.

Studies have shown that when smokers see logo-free advertising associated with
cigarettes, like the Ferrari, triggers cravings more than the logos or cigarette packs themselves.

The reason is that since the subtle images showed no visible logos; the smokers weren’t consciously aware that they were looking at an advertising message, so they let their guard down.

It’s a little scary to find out that what we think doesn’t have to do with smoking, in fact, is the most effective technique.


Tobacco companies have been using movies for decades to advertise cigarettes. It is a powerful way to relate smoking to beauty, romance, sexual appeal, and manhood.

Silvester Stallone signed a contract where he would smoke Brown & Williamson cigarettes for a fee of $500,000.

$350,000 to have Lark cigarettes show up in the James Bond film, License to Kill.

Superman 2 received $43,000 to show Marlboro.

They paid $30,000 to place Eve’s cigarettes in Supergirl

Future customers

A huge part of the marketing budget goes out to the stores in signs, posters, and promotions.

tobacco advertising kids, shop, smoking

Behind the clerk, you can see the tobacco shelves at the same eye level as the kids.

Research shows that kids who visit convenience stores with tobacco marketing more than twice a week are more likely to smoke.

There are also cheap cigars with flavors and menthol cigarettes which makes smoking easier for beginners.

Book Sources:

Article Sources:

  1. Descriptive Norms and Hotel Guests’ Towel Reuse Behavior
  2. Why Apple headphones are white- Business Insider
  3. Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment
  6. The Impact of DTC Advertising
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