Brain ticks and finger clicks: Five basic dynamics of human behaviour used to persuade shoppers

This week I’d like to help you increase the persuasive power of your website, simply by understanding five basic dynamics of human behaviour.

Let’s start with the use of language.

1. Emotionalising the language

The human language is fairly young, from an evolutionary point of view. Experts say it developed about 200,000 years ago. Then, it was integrated in existing structures of the human brain, but it didn’t fundamentally change them. To ensure survival, it is still primed to deliver on the three core functions:

  • Recognition = visual detection of objects;
  • Evaluation of objects = emotion. The question here is pretty straight forward: Is the object good? (= useful = reward) or is the object bad (= dangerous = pain/punishment); and lastly
  • Action = the act of moving towards or away from an object.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this is why language, which is (i) pictorial and metaphorical, (ii) emotional and (iii) active – ideally all at once – gets processed many times faster and achieves a considerably higher emotional impact.

Our everyday language is packed with images and metaphors, like “he is strong as an ox”, or “she has got nerves of steel”. So, when writing or selling it is clever to use this emotional quality of the brain. One quick example:

Example 1: The special feature with product A is the ingredient XY. Chemical reactions change the structures of the deeper layers of the skin. Thereby the skin gets firmer and more hydrated.

Example 2: The product B works on your skin like clean spring waters. Intensely moisturising and refreshing it alleviates the thirst of the skin and leaves it gloriously radiant and moisturised.

Without consciously noticing, the second text evokes strong emotional images that have a lasting effect. Whenever possible, abstract language should be avoided, because the customer’s brain – unless they are a philosopher maybe – is not made for it.

2. The power of social proof

Emotional language and evocative imagery have a big impact. We must not, however, forget about the fact that after we make a decision emotionally (quickly and subconsciously), our consciousness will look for a proof (rationalisation and reason), to justify the decision.

Here, it is most effective to apply the principle of social proof. Underlying this is the principle of social desirability, meaning that we as humans tend to observe and imitate other humans’ behaviour. This helps us to understand what is normal and what is appropriate. Therefore you should not only incorporate ranking/rating and commentary functions, but also to place them on an appropriate, prominent spot on the website that will provide the user with the necessary reassurance from others.

Research from IBM’s Institute for Business Value recently confirmed the value of consumer product reviews in the Smarter Consumer Study. Other consumers, friends and family together now make up 70% of the trusted sources of product information as distinct from retailers and manufacturers who account for only 13% of sources that are perceived as trustworthy.

3. Framing your offer

We humans rarely form our view on things in absolute terms, but rather compare the relative benefits of one option over the other (“relativity of perception”). Therefore one should, when possible, provide alternate options that enable a direct comparison.


The case of the world’s first bread baking machine illustrates this fact beautifully.

When units first hit the shelves at Williams-Sonoma for $275, consumers didn’t buy. No one was willing to spend that kind of money on a product they’d never heard of.

Stuck with a surplus of stock, Williams-Sonoma desperately hired a market research firm, which proposed to introduce a new model priced 50% higher. Sales went through the roof. Why? Because without having another option to compare to, consumers had no idea how much a breadmaker should cost.

By introducing a second one, the lower priced model seemed relatively inexpensive, and secondly changed the question from “Why should I buy this?” to “Which one of the two should I buy?”

Providing a comparison tool on your website and recommendations for alternatives to the product will facilitate the decision-making process. Clearly showing product features and specifications also reduces complexity and makes the comparison that much simpler for the customer.

4. The scarcity principle

This is the very powerful principle of artificial shortage. The less there are, the more desirable and precious they seem. So drawing attention to the limited amount of stock that is left, time limitations or barriers of accessibility will increase the perceived value of a product or service and make the customer want to hunt it down.

5. Authority

Here, credibility is the key. If a website communicates credibility by using testimonials, seals of quality and links to independent expert reviews, users are more prepared to follow their calls to action. Anything that comes externally from the retailer will carry a higher level of trust and authority.

This goes back to the subconsciously evoked feeling of security and trust, which is crucial for online transactions. As our research showed, security concerns about giving banking information over the internet as well as giving out private information online are still two out of the five top barriers of online shopping domestically as well as globally.

What techniques do you use that work for your business? Have you had any experience applying similar or the same principles? As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions!

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, a subsidiary of Retail Doctor Group, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale. “Innovative consumer insights are vital to the development and implementation of a truly differentiated brand strategy. How we as humans interact with brands in a meaningful and loyal way underpins the growth and profitability of all businesses.”




Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments