The Psychology of Decisions - Part One

Martin Hansen-Lennox

Published Mon 14 Mar by Martin Hansen-Lennox in Recommended Articles, Creating Better Content and Marketing More Effectively

Savvy web designers and copywriters use a subtle blend of psychology and simple, high-quality content to woo their potential customers. In part one, this article explains how.

Psychologist Francis Crick says: ‘Although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.’

How many people have you heard who say ‘Advertising doesn’t work on me’ ? In this postmodern age, many of us believe we are too savvy, or too cynical, to get taken in by advertising.

But some may argue that advertising has gone underground. That it sits largely beneath our consciousness. There are elements at work that many of us do not notice, let alone fight.

Some advertising has gone to one end of the extreme: brash, invasive and lacking in subtlety. Pop up ads and banner ads with which we’re bombarded every time we go online. Calls to action that are activated when we as much as hover over a certain part of a web page.

But the more savvy web designers and copywriters use a subtle blend of psychology and simple, high-quality content to woo their potential customers rather than tricking them.

That’s where the psychology behind decision-making comes in.

The development of technology has been a mind-blowing experience for the human race. For much of our evolution we have faced an environment that differs greatly from the modern business world in which we now find ourselves. We have evolved to acquire a range of cognitive shortcuts to enable us to cope with adverse environments in which resources are scarce.

 What Are Heuristics?

Simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts are called heuristics. They enable us to make quick decisions. Historically, stopping to analyse fully the situation and make a decision based on every angle of our thinking would have been fatal. For example: ‘There’s a tiger: run!!’ Rather than: ‘There’s a tiger. I will sit here and contemplate all the different possibilities of action and their likely outcomes.’

This is what is called the ‘reptilian’ brain: the part of our brain that makes split-second (and possibly life-saving) decisions. We can bypass our rational brain, which takes longer to come to a conclusion, using our emotions, our gut instinct, rather than our logic. The reptile brain is the hub of instinctive judgements, leading to quick actions. These evolved methods of decision-making, while fast and efficient, can also create negative effects such as prejudice and habit: a lack of flexibility.

How We Use Heuristics

When we’re making decisions on what to buy or commit to online, we are often in a hurry. We don’t have time to spend weighing up pros and cons. Unconsciously, we expect a well-designed website to do that sort of background work for us.

When we are making a decision about which product to buy online, we unconsciously accept that information will be relatively limited and that we are not going to be able to thoroughly analyse every possibility.

We use heuristics, mental shortcuts, based on what we already know, to reduce the amount of mental energy we need to use in order to make a decision. 

An example of this is buying Levi jeans because they have a well-established reputation that has endured for many generations.

Heuristics are responsible for the concept of ‘brand loyalty.’ Not many of us would want to admit that we always buy a certain brand because our brains are lazy, but essentially this is how we tick.

So with this knowledge, it’s a web designer’s job to harness these heuristics and make that decision-making path a lot smoother; so smooth that people are going to want to tread it time and time again.

 The Role of Memory and Emotion in Heuristics

Our mental shortcuts are, essentially, lazy. We give more air-time to information that is readily available, with the least possible mental effort from ourselves. We also give precedence to memories that are emotionally significant for us personally. 

Information that supports a view we have already established is more prominent for us. For example, if you’ve already decided to vote to stay in the EU, you’re more likely to listen to arguments and read newspaper articles which support this view.

Without the filtration system that is heuristics, our brains would be swamped with too much information. We wouldn’t be able to function. We have to be able to filter out options or we would never make a decision about anything.

But this does make our judgements biased. Our brains tend to follow the same paths, even when it comes to making a decision about which breakfast cereal to buy. This is where brands and logos come in. They are powerful elements in our world, as they appeal to our shortcut-searching brains.

 In TechGnosis, Erik Davis gives a rather dystopian outlook on our attachment to company logos:

Our collective symbols are forged in the multiplex, our archetypes trademarked, licensed, and sold. ... A baroque arcana of logos, brand names, and corporate sigils now pepper landscapes, goods, and our costumed bodies. ... our mnemonic icons no longer mediate the animist powers of nature or the social magic of kings, but the power of corporate identity and the commodity fetish.

Advertising has tapped into the instinctive human brain, so that almost everyone on the planet will recognise the yellow M of the McDonald’s sign. Whether we find this inspiring, or frightening, there’s no doubt of the impressive power of advertising heuristics.

Rob Walker summarises: "People do not buy products. They buy ideas about products."

Have a look at these webpages and notice the logo of each brand: what words come to your mind when you see them?

Quality? Prestige? Trust?

Healthy? Diets? Will help me lose weight? Slim body?

Respect? Luxury? Aspire? Esteem? Rich? Capital city?

 Cool? Sleek? New? Innovative?

Cheap? Bargain? Hidden cost? Untrustworthy?

So to summarise, in Part One of The Psychology of Decision, we’ve talked about the human brain’s need for mental shortcuts: otherwise known as heuristics. This need is inherent, to enable us to make quick and (largely) sound decisions, based both on our past experience, and of course, on our individual biases.

Advertising and marketing can shape these mental shortcuts in us the more we are exposed to them, so we recognise brands and logos and instantly get a gut feeling about them.

In Part Two, we’re going to talk about how your website can enable the decision-making process, helping your potential customers on the smooth path to purchase... 

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