How Your Customers Think

Part One Of Discussing Cognitive Bias
06 May 2019   |   by Peter Brooks   |   Articles
It really pays to understand the thought processes that lead people to buy (or not to buy).

The problem is, consumer psychology is a pretty complicated subject. There are, however, some predictable peculiarities in the way almost everybody thinks, collectively known as cognitive biases. Once you understand them, you'll have a much better idea of how your marketing messages are really being received by your customers.

What are cognitive biases?

Decision-making can be studied by modelling each part of the thought process as a cog in a machine. There are a few accepted models, but most share a common thread in that they divide the mind into three distinct sections:

The unconscious mind - this is the most primitive part of the mind, concerned primarily with staying alive. Our physiological needs such as hunger, thirst and sexuality could be considered to stem from here. So could our reflexes, for example the impulse to put our hands out when we fall. Generally speaking, from moment to moment we have very little awareness of the unconscious motivations driving us to act and think in a certain way.

The subconscious mind - just like the unconscious mind, this part of us could be thought of as a reflex centre. However, we are able to gain more awareness of it. For example, we all know how to walk from the shop back to our house instinctively; but if we choose to consciously think about it then we can easily override the instinct by taking a different route home. In some ways, the subconscious is like a memory store that soaks up everything from our day-to-day experience. Dreams are often our way of sorting through this memory store in order to structure and 'file away' the parts of it that we have not consciously considered.

The conscious mind - this is the part of us that deals in logic; the part of us which is responsible for our internal dialogue. While we like to convince ourselves that we live our lives making logical cognitive decisions from this part of our mind, the truth is that the conscious mind is actually a slave to the other parts of our minds' parts that we have much less control over.

That's the really shocking part and it's hard to accept. Our egos mean we fool ourselves into thinking that we always make good, logical decisions. In truth though, we are constantly making poor decisions because of the biases being fed to our conscious mind from our unconscious and subconscious.

These predispositions in our thought processes are known as 'cognitive biases'. Here are a few of the simple biases that can easily be related to marketing:

The Bizarreness Effect, Humour & Rhyme-as-Reason Bizarre or funny things are more memorable.

That's why off-the-wall TV adverts work so well. Where there is richness of meaning or unique context, we create very specific memories rather than lumping the new information in with older similar information. Furthermore, believe it or not, people are more likely to perceive statements as truth if they rhyme!

The Google Effect.

The internet is awesome. It has opened our eyes and broadened our horizons. Unfortunately, it has also destroyed our capacity to remember things. In general, people find it hard to remember anything which they know can be found easily through a search engine. Our subconscious is always whispering: "don't worry, you don't need to remember that".

So, don't waste your breath telling people things like your address in an advert... it will go in one ear and out the other. They'll remember your brand and Google it to find out where you are when they are ready.

Ingroup Bias

People naturally garner positive feelings towards people and things that they class as belonging to their community; whether that is defined by social class, physical location, ethical beliefs or something else. Talking about your brand's environmental policy or charity work in your marketing communications can bolster that sense of belonging to the same club.

This is also why choosing the style and tone (i.e. the 'fashion') of your brand is so important. From corporate to Gen Y, we all identify with certain trends. And apparently we're all so self-absorbed that we like anything which reminds us of ourselves!

The problem with cognitive bias

There are dozens of cognitive biases like those listed above. You no doubt read them and thought: "Yeah, I've seen other people do that... but not me, I'm different". This is called the 'bias blindspot'.

That's right, it's another cognitive bias that we all suffer from. While we can often see the mistakes in another person's thinking, we struggle to judge ourselves as honestly. That's why working in teams with people you trust is so important when you're developing a campaign. Get everyone to sense check everything!

We'll cover a few more cognitive biases in the next 3 instalments in this series.
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