The Psychology Of Selling

Consider the following scenarios:

Every day hundreds of people die due to a lack of treatment for preventable diseases.

Yesterday a woman by the name of Sarah Hart, a mother of three, was found dead outside her home after missing for twelve days.

Which one affected you more? The hundreds of dead, or wife and mother Sarah Hart?

Chances are you were much more affected by Sarah Hart than the untold hundreds. This is the identifiable victim effect, which is when we have a stronger emotional response to the traumas of a single identified person versus a group. But this isn’t limited to just traumatic experiences, it is also used when attempting to persuade someone to buy something, in that case it’s called testimonials.

Weight loss infomercials excel at this. It begins by presenting you with an ‘overweight’ everyday Joe or Jane and presenting a story that ties you emotionally to them. Once you have identified with the person they then show you what was achieved in thirty, or sixty days later. By changing things such as the music, lighting, angling of the camera, clothing, stance etc you are immediately filled with a sense of hope, excitement, pride, and within the next few seconds longing; as the narrator tells you, that you too can experience the remarkable transformation.

Identifiable victim effect is also one of the first forms of persuasion that we learn. Back when are children we quickly discover that by producing tears where there are none, or twisting our faces into the deepest frowns imaginable we can convince our parents to comply.

Another aspect to consider when persuading someone is source characteristics. Source characteristics are the attractiveness, perceived credibility, and expertise of the person delivering the message. This is when the halo effect can come into play and have a powerful role in determining whether we believe what is said.

In our infomercial example the source characteristics come from both  the narrator and the participants. Comparing the before and after pictures highlights the gains in attractiveness, this is heightened by showing the extremes of each case.

In the before pictures the person will appear in a general state of unhappiness, darker lighting, loose baggy clothing, slouching, these factors combine to gear our thinking toward unattractive. In the after picture the participant appears well dressed, usually in something that highlights their weight loss, they are beaming, the lighting is significantly better, even the music is more upbeat. All of this combines to gear our thinking toward attractive.

Credibility comes from the pictures and short documentaries that accompany these programs. Expertise comes from the narrator that rattles off a number of endorsements and statics which help to create the general appearance of being knowledgeable about the topic.

Top this all off with the influence receiver characteristics have and you now have a powerful piece of persuasion. These infomercials tend to play late at night or early in the morning, automatically targeting a certain population, and given the time we are more likely to have negative thoughts toward ourselves and be in lower states of arousal which can slow down our ability to fully think. It is no wonder we are willing to commit to three easy payments of $____, thanks to an offer that only last if we call within the next ten minutes.

Implanting the desire to be like the participants, and imparting a sense of urgency through a time sensitive offer is an excellent way to put a stop to our ability to fully process and think about what we are being told. Making us much more likely to go with whatever urges or desires we are experiencing at the moment.

The ability to persuade is a powerful tool that can be used anywhere and at any time, by setting up the correct source characteristics,  timing your pitch when the receiver is most susceptible, and supplying someone or thing for the receiver to identify with, it becomes surprisingly simple  to persuade.

Being aware of the fundamental aspects of persuasion will help you to better detect when it is occurring to you, and may even keep you from completing that impulse buy at four in the morning.



Would You Jump Off A Bridge If……

…..All your friends were doing it?

Yes, when I was seven.

Welcome to the power of the group, one of the most useful tools and weapons at humankind’s disposal. Virtually all of our major decision-making occurs in a group setting, from the government to party attire it comes down to one thing, the group.

Why groups are powerful:

Groups pull their power from four major areas, responsibility, acceptance, thought, and polarization. In group settings it’s easy to think someone else will do it, or to feel so empowered (by the support of other members) that you’re able to ask for that number or accept that death.

Diffusion of Responsibility-This is the sense we feel when acting out at a bar with our group of friends. It’s the feeling of anonymity provided to us by a group, outsiders won’t know which one of us in the group shouted that obscenity, or pulled that prank just that it occurred. It’s also the sense we feel when walking down the street with friends and ignoring the homeless asking for change. Someone else will give it to him. When we’re in a group there is always someone else.

Social Acceptance-Whether we are in a group of criminals or a group of church-goers being accepted by the group, particularly the influential members is a powerful motivator. If we believe our actions will garner approval we become extremely more likely to do it, even if it’s out of our comfort zone. An ambitious new getaway driver will still participate in the high stakes bank heist if he believes it will get him an ‘in’ with the boss. A struggling middle class family in a strong church community will still donate money they might not have, if they believe they will appear more pious for doing so.

Group Think-How is it that ants or termites are able to build such massive complex structures to live in without a floor plan, or a head insect directing them to their tasks? While the exact reason remains a mystery to me, it is still an excellent example of group think. A cognitive phenomenon that occurs when decisions that are believed to influence the group as a whole need to be made. This is something that large organizations of any kind excel at; when something grows too large for one person to manage more managers are created. As the managerial group increases so does the likelihood of group think. While group think is something that occurs in a state of deindividualization it is powered and maintained by the individual.

Group Polarization-In today’s society this event is portrayed as extremist. This brings with it all the negative connotations of a rioting populace, terrorist, displeasing politicians, or religious groups that are even rejected by their non-extremist counterparts. This is only the stereotype of group polarization it does occur in less publicly known circumstances. Imagine yourself going out with a group of friends; all of your friends swear that the restaurant you all are going to is amazing, while you on the other hand are on the fence. By the end of the night you may not think the restaurant is amazing, but you’ll at least think it’s better than most.

All of these components combine to act as the fuel the gives groups their power, and each one is fueled by its own set of components, ranging from the individual to the environment, to the voice of the weakest minority or powerful majority. While groups are capable of unspeakable evil they are also capable of unheard of good and in the end it is up to the individuals in that group to determine what and where they’ll be known for. In the end, it is up to you.

The Grass ISN’T Greener On The Other Side

Is it really greener on the other side?

Jealousy is an interesting thing; we experience it in our love lives, among our friends, at the work place, among family, and with our neighbors. It’s something that we pick up when we’re children and the other kid has the new action figure or Barbie doll. Psychologist have noticed and sought to find an explanation, what they’ve found is relative deprivation. A phenomenon that gives us some insight into why we tend to think the grass is greener on the other side.

What is it: Relative deprivation is the experience of feeling deprived when we compare ourselves to others that are in a same or similar situation as us. We see the person, in this case our neighbors, as doing better than us even though they may be doing the same or worse. While they may have just bought a new car, which looks good on the outside, the may be under a tighter financial budget than you are due to the added expense.

How’s it work: Relative deprivation works off of our natural tendency to evaluate ourselves through the eyes of others. It’s something that is programmed into us going as far back as childhood, parents and teachers encourage us to be more like (insert successful person here), our childhood friends encourage us to be more like our favorite super hero(ine). With all of this reinforcement to evaluate ourselves through comparison the relative deprivation phenomenon is a natural evolution of our psyches.

How to be aware: With something such as relative deprivation that has permeated almost all of our thought processes being able to successfully modify it can be difficult. One of the simpler ways to go about doing so is to notice when the thoughts are occurring and ask yourself if what they have really is better for you. Take a moment to think about if the item or ability in question would really improve your life, and if it’s worth investing the necessary resources.

If your car works just fine, and shows no intention of breaking down in the next year or so, do you really need to add the extra costs to your finances? Will buying the new pair of shoes that your friend is wearing really make that much of a difference? Chances are you’ll find that everyone likes you the same whether you have the item in question or not. So instead of thinking of yourself as deprived when comparing yourself to others, think of yourself as unique, because that same person is wishing they were you.

Mind Reading 101

Knowing what you are going to do before you do. We all do it, read minds, while we may not be able to pick up on the actual thoughts the person is having we can and do predict their behavior with various degrees of success. When we say such and such is going to (insert reaction) when (insert action) happens, we are predicting someone’s behavior, and since behavior originates in the mind…

Take a look at John, John is a hardworking family man with strong moral values, he is moderately religious and a social drinker. Today John has to walk home from work since his car is in the shop. During his walk a man pushes past him as he rushes out of a store, John recognizes him as one of his neighbors. Later that night John is out drinking with his longtime friends and hears on the news that there a string of robberies and a murder has occurred earlier that day.

One of the stores listed is the store the man who shoved John aside emerged from. There is a request for anyone with information to call the police. John informs his friends who thinks that he should call the police, a friend of a friend is one of the store owners who was robbed. Later John informs his wife and asks her opinion on the matter. His wife tells him that she doesn’t think he should call, she’s afraid that the thief will find out that John tipped off the police and come seeking revenge. Understanding his wife’s worry, her father was killed years ago in a robbery gone wrong, John gets ready for bed undecided on what to do. What will John do?

If you guess there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll be right, but with a bit of mind reading it is possible to change that 50-50, to something more in your favor. Setting aside that the limitations of the example, it is still possible to form an accurate prediction about what John will  do.

There are four basic components to the mind reading.

The Components:

Attitude-A person’s attitude toward something, whether they think it’s right or wrong, whether they like or dislike something, and whether they believe in it or not, plays a strong role in predicting how they are going to behave. If for instance I believe that McDonalds fries are better than Wendy’s fries you can safely say that if I ever end up at Wendy’s I’ll be unlikely to order or eat their fries. You can also safely say that buying me McDonalds fries is an easy way to get on my good side.

Approval-Humans are extremely social creatures and much of our behaviors and skill sets revolve around increasing our ability to be social. Even our most popular technologies are based off of our need to socialize, websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress are not incredibly successful because of design ingenuity. A large part of their success is because they allows us to socialize with others at a faster pace than we can if we have to physically visit each other.

Our need to be social has also given rise to our need for approval, why is something as simple as the Facebook like button throughout the entirety of the internet? Because it allows us and others to show their approval for whatever we’ve done. In the world of psychology our need for approval of our actions is known as subjective norms.

Belief-Remember the song “I believe I can fly,” even if you weren’t alive when it first came out chances are you’ve heard the song at least once. There’s something incredibly inspirational about that song that’s allowed it to permeate so many generations of people, and that is belief. If someone believes they can do and succeed at something they are that more likely to engage in that behavior.

Athletic coaches refer to this as heart, having enough heart to score that last touchdown, or run that last yard, or hit that last ball. Creatives refer to this as passion, the business world refers to it as ‘wanting it,’ in the end it all boils down to belief. When someone believes that they are in control of something, even though they may not be, they are much more likely to work harder than normal to succeed.

Thought-The last component to mind is thought. You can’t predict anything without putting some thought into it, even if you aren’t aware of it. Thought is the glue that brings it all together.

Before continuing make your decision about what you think John will do and why you think so, write it down then continue.


In order to determine what John will do I first looked at John’s attitude, he has strong moral values which leads me to conclude that he has a strong sense of justice, he is also hardworking which makes me think that he is not a fan of underhanded get rich quick schemes. Combine this with him being moderately religious and I start to think of someone who values “honest to God work,” while this is a stereotype/heuristic it does prove useful in the example. However, that same combination of strong moral values and religion also leads me to believe he has strong ties to his family and takes their thoughts/opinions into consideration when deciding what to do.

Approval-In our example John’s strong social ties are to his family, especially his wife who helped him create their family. As any husband would, he seeks her approval and experiences varying levels of distress when he doesn’t get it. On the other hand John considers his friends to be brothers, some of them he knew before even meeting his wife, he worries how they will react if he follows his wife’s advice and remains silent.

Belief-There is no doubt that John believes he can make the call, it’s as simple as picking up the phone and dialing a number.

In the end my prediction is that John will make the call and inform the police, while he may not do it right away I believe that after sleeping on it, and thinking about it throughout his work day he will decide that the best course of action is to inform the police. His strong sense of morals and belief in ‘honest to God work,’ are contributing factors, as well as the immediate closeness brought to the dilemma by his friend’s indirect involvement. While his loyalty to his wife and need for her approval are strong factors, the disagreement resulting from him going against her wishes at first glance is not strong enough to cause any significant or long-lasting damage to their relationship. On the other hand, should he have sided with his wife, their could be significant conflict among his group of friends, causing a possible division within the group.

There are a number of other factors that can be considered in determining what John chooses to do however, using these four basic components can for the most part successfully predict behavior and bring you one step closer to being a mind reader.

Which Glue Holds You Together

Below are three statements, read them and chose the one that best matches how you relate to others.

1. It is difficult for me to trust or depend on others completely. I begin to get nervous when someone gets close, my significant other/romantic interest wants me to be more intimate than I am comfortable with.

2. It is easy for me to get close to others, I don’t worry about my significant other/romantic interest wanting to be too close and it is easy for me to depend on others and have them depend on me.

3. It is hard for others to get as close to me as I want. Sometimes I scare my significant other/romantic interest away because they think I’m “moving too fast,” I worry that my close friends aren’t as trusting as they seem to be.

Each of the above statements represents one of the three attachment styles that we form during childhood and are prevalent throughout life. The first statement relates best to those of us with the avoidant attachment style. Those of us who primarily have this form of attachment may sometimes be called loners, or described as being ‘not a people person.’ They tend to prefer working alone, may usually feel insecure in their relationships and when uncertain or threatened become withdrawn, detached, and dismissive of the issue at hand.

The second statement refers to those of us with the secure attachment style. These tend to be the ‘people persons,’ they are generally comfortable with intimacy and prefer to be with people they are close to when threatened or uncertain. As the name suggest they are secure in their relationships both with friends and lovers.

The third statement describes those of us with the anxious attachment style. Those of us who relate best to this are similar to the avoidants in feeling insecure in relationships. However, those of the anxious attachment style actively seek closeness with others, they might be described as ‘clingy,’ ‘controlling,’ ‘fast moving.’ When threatened or uncertain they tend to try to become even closer with their confidants or significant other, they also tend to continuously worry about their relationships.

Having an avoidant or anxious attachment style does not automatically spell doom, just as having a secure attachment style does not automatically mean success. Attachment styles represent only one aspect of our personalities, and it isn’t uncommon for someone who shows secure attachment tendencies in the work place to show anxious attachment tendencies at home.

Various combinations are a common occurrence, knowing what your attachment style is refers to the most prevalent, it is not the be all end all to your personality and future relationships. These attachment styles are based off of the attachment theory, which is a theory describing how the early attachments we formed as children with our parents continue to influence our relationships and personality throughout life.

There has even be a study conducted by Mary Ainsworth known as the strange situation. In the experiment she had a mother and baby  enter a room filled with toys. The mother placed the baby on the floor allowing it to play. While the baby played a stranger would enter the room and the mother would leave, soon after the mother would return and comfort the baby if it cried during her absence. The mother would then place the baby back on the floor to play with the toys, if the baby resumed crying she would comfort it once again and the experiment would be concluded.

Ainsworth used this experiment to study the three attachment styles. When the mother returned if she quickly comforted the crying baby, the baby was said to be forming a secure attachment style. If while playing the mother intruded on the baby and/or rejected the baby, and the baby cried or showed anger when placed on the floor with the toys the baby was said to be forming an anxious attachment style. If the baby ignored everyone in the room and rejected the mother when she attempted to intrude or offer comfort the baby was said to be forming an avoidant attachment style.

Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation study was only the first of studies looking to further our understandings of attachment styles, and personality. Our personalities are multilayered  and complex, and there is no one theory that can describe it in whole so it is important to not generalize one aspect of your personality to the entire thing. Knowing our primary attachment style can offer us interesting insight into ourselves that we may otherwise not be aware of. It can also make for an interesting conversation piece with your close friends to find out which attachment style each of you are.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

We’re starting today’s post with two scenes, the first paragraph of each is the same, the second paragraph is different.

Version 1

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate, he glances down and picks it up just as a car swerves in front of him. John slams on the breaks, cursing at the driver that nearly side swiped him, “dumbass” he mutters turning back to the message on his phone.

Version 2

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate. He ignores the phone and keeps his attention on the road, out of the corner of his eye he notices a car attempting to past him. “No you don’t,” he mutters and speeds up, the car slams on its breaks, the screech of the tires and roar of the horn are pierced by the short scream of a woman. John glances in his rear view mirror, the car has come to a dead stop, in front of it the body a woman lays crumpled on the ground.

The obvious difference in these scenes is John’s decision to keep the car from passing, and the dead woman. However, we’re interested in a more subtle difference in the scene’s, which is John’s interpretation of the driver that attempts to get in front of him. In the first scene the car succeeds, John labels the driver as rude and foolish, in the second he is too shocked to label the driver as anything, and feels guilty for not allowing the driver to pass.

This act of labeling, of assuming someone’s behavior is a direct indicator to the type of person they are is known as the fundamental attribution error or FAE. Fundamental attribution error is not limited to behaviors that are interpreted in a negative way, it can also apply to positive behaviors.

If we see a man, helping an elderly woman cross the street, we will automatically assume he is a nice man with good intentions. When in actuality, he is helping her to earn her trust for an impending con.

Being aware of FAE and how it influences your perception of those around you can help you remember that our actions are not always a direct indication of our character or personality.

FAE influences our perceptions of everyone, from politicians, to pets, to characters in a book, FAE occurs on a near constant basis. The effects it has on us become stronger when our lives settle into routine and the need for active thinking decreases. However, you don’t have to be subject to it all the time.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings, or that of the person can go a long way in explaining why they behaved a certain way, and can help to keep you from assuming the worst of a nice person, or trusting someone who is just out to get you.

Animal Training, Human Robots, and Fluffy Bunnies

Why was it that back when we were in high school the sound of the bell stripped us of all further desire to work. Or how when we think we feel a vibration we immediately reach for our phone searching for the next text message, Facebook or twitter update. Or why we immediately respond with “fine, you,” when asked how we’re doing?

The quick and easy answer is that it’s a habit, or it’s proper social etiquette. The long and complicated though infinitely more interesting answer is that we’ve been conditioned. Within behavioral psychology there are two fundamental concepts that play a role in assisting in understanding the complex behaviors we engage in every day. They are classical conditioning, and operant conditioning.

Conditioning? Are you trying to call us robots, or animals to be trained?

No, not exactly. We are animals, and sometimes we do engage in repetitious actions like robots but no, that’s not what I’m saying at all.

Adhering to KISS I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible.

Classical Conditioning: There are 4 pieces to classical conditioning. The CS:  conditioned stimulus, the UCS: unconditioned stimulus. The CR: conditioned response, and the UCR: unconditioned response.

Stop all the medical mumbo jumbo, and give it to me straight doc:

To keep everything simple we’re going to use an example, it’s actually a famous example about a man named Ivan Pavlov and his dog.

One day Ivan noticed that when his dog saw dog food, (dog food=UCS) he would begin to salivate in anticipation, (salivation=UCR). So Pavlov began to wonder, is it possible for me to make my dog salivate before he sees the food? A lot of scientific thought ensued, and the result was this, Pavlov decided that when it was Fido’s lunch time he would ring a bell (CS) moments before presenting the food.

Some days or weeks passed and Pavlov decided to check and see if there was anything to his little experiment. So one day during lunch time he rung the bell and noticed that his dog immediately began to salivate (CR) even though there wasn’t any food in the room!

That is, the core, and simplest version of what is known today as classical conditioning. Pairing a ‘generated’ stimulus with a ‘natural’ stimulus in order to cause the ‘natural’ response to occur on the ‘generated’ stimulus.

Say what?

Here’s an example that I’ve found helps me keep it all straight in my head. Imagine a friend, any friend will do, now imagine yourself smiling (CS) at the friend, follow up this smile with a pinch on their arm (UCS) your friend will then feel pain and anxiety, (UCR). Do this often enough and eventually your smile alone will be enough to make your friend feel pain and anxiety (CR).

The dark side of classical conditioning:

When I first learned about conditioning back in high school I also learned about an experiment done by a notable psychologist of his day (whose name eludes me) on a young girl, and the disastrous aftermath.

The psychologist gave the girl a fluffy white bunny (a teddy bear not the living animal) once the girl began playing with the bunny he would make a loud noise behind her, startling her and causing her to cry. After enough pairings of this, white fluffy bunny, and loud noise, he observed that just the sight of the white furry bunny would make the girl cry.

Knowing of extinction he assured the parents that the girl would be fine within a few days. Then generalization occurred. One day at home the girl came across a white fluffy blanket, upon spotting it she immediately began to cry. It was soon discovered that a white fluffy anything would make her cry, even though according to calculations extinction should have occurred.

What happened here is generalization, and that is when our conditioned stimulus spreads to everything resembling it. This is less likely to happen with older people (those of us who aren’t toddlers), although being conditioned with a stimulus that has multiple identifying features can trigger it.

OKAY…So that’s classical, what’s operant? 

Operant conditioning is a way of influencing our behavior based on the reward or punishment we receive from engaging in that behavior.

Here’s an example: we are siting in our cubicle at work when suddenly the fire alarm goes off. (This is our environment acting on us), in response we escape the building, (this is our behavior reacting to our environment), and we are then rewarded with our life and health.

That reward of safety will act as strong positive reinforcement to engage in that exact behavior the next time we hear a fire alarm.

But doc I still don’t get it!

I know, it took me a while too, and by the way I’m not a doctor, just a psychology nut.

For this example we turn to children: children go to school and receive homework. They then chose whether or not to do this homework, doing the homework rewards them with good grades and praise, not doing the homework punishes them with a loss of privileges and disappointment in those they look up to.

Or if you don’t have kids, or remember what it was like to be kid turn to your puppy.

Puppy decides that your brand new living room carpet is prime real estate to relieve himself. You catch him in the act and scold him, while hastily carrying him to the nearest exit.

Eventually puppy learns that going in the house is bad, and becomes less likely to engage in the behavior because of the associated punishment. Puppy also learns that going outside is good and becomes more likely to engage in the behavior due to the subsequent reward of pats and praise.

But wait, does this mean that every conditioning I’ve ever had stays forever:

Absolutely not, conditioning both operant and classical has a shelf life. That can vary from days or weeks to years, it depends on how strong the conditioning and associations are. However, if you are repeatedly exposed to the CS, a dog without a leash, but the dog doesn’t do anything hostile to illicit fear, soon enough that particular conditioning will fade away.

The flip side to conditioning of just about any type, is that, once you’ve been conditioned even if extinction does occur it’s a lot easier to become reconditioned with the same stimulus and response.

Where can I use this?

You can and do use both classical and operant conditioning all the time. Just about every action we engage in has an associated reward or punishment, all of those instances are instances of operant conditioning.

When we’re driving somewhere and the car in front of us suddenly breaks we react by slamming on our own breaks and having a spike in heart rate and arousal.

Then later on when we’re riding as a passenger and a car slams on the brakes in front of us, we may mimic slamming on our own invisible brakes and we have that spike in heart rate and arousal. Or if we’re watching a movie and we see a car brake abruptly, we experience that tension of the body and heightened arousal.

All of that, is classical conditioning. So you see we’re not robots, or animals, well we are animals but we’re usually not robots. Conditioning is just a way to explain our behaviors, and help us further understand why and how we end up doing the things we do. Even not feeling awake until your morning coffee is conditioning, to an extent…

It’s never that simple is it doc?