How We Convince Ourselves To Buy Products We Don’t Need

Are You Unconsciously Seeking Permission To Spend More Money On Brand New Stuff?

Source: How We Convince Ourselves To Buy Products We Don’t Need

Douglas Van Praet

When you make up your mind to buy a new brand, product or service you are really making up your minds in the plural. Our decision making process involves two cognitive systems, one conscious and rational and the other unconsciousand emotional. Emotions tend to weigh in first and heaviest in our buying decisions followed by logic or reason. That’s because at this point in our brain’s evolutionary development our emotional circuits dominate. This is why it can be so hard to control our emotions and how our emotions often tend to control us.

But our rational thinking can serve as the important critical filter for our brand choices much like a gatekeeper, or the bouncer at the door that decides whether or not to give permission to move forward.

I have written a book called Unconscious that explains the driving forces both conscious and unconscious that make us buy brands. There are seven steps to this process:

1) Interrupt the Pattern,…

2) Create Comfort,…

3) Lead the Imagination,…

4) Shift the Feeling,…

5) Satisfy the Critical Mind

6) Change the Associations

7) Take Action

I’m blogging about Step 5: Satisfy the Critical Mind.

Cognitive science is telling us that we are not rational creatures. We are rationalizers. And when our emotional desires begin to shift toward a prospective brand, we subsequently seek to align our reasons to be consistent with that intention. Our rational mind is always looking for evidence to support our dominant beliefs . . . the stronger the emotion, the stronger the belief, and the greater the tendency to seek out supporting evidence. This confirmatory bias is why we often overlook the flaws of the ones we love, even if that loved one is a brand. We focus our attention on the positive qualities of the brand while ignoring the deficiencies. This predilection is what prevents Republicans and Democrats from finding common ground in the same set of facts, and why it is impossible to win an argument with someone on an emotionally charged issue like abortion or the existence of God. No amount of logic or reasoning can overcome strong feelings because the emotionally charged mind will always find its reasons to believe.

What this means for consumers is we are always looking for permission to act upon our emotional desires to buy brand new products and services. This predisposition is so deeply ingrained in the consumer buying process because our minds have been conditioned to look for reasons over years and years of exposure to ads and product pitches. It is our unconscious tendency to respond to a rationale even if it appears to be irrational, accepting factual information that doesn’t always really make sense. Harvard professor Ellen Langer was one of the first social psychologists to think about the role of the unconscious processing of information. In a study Langer conducted in the late 1970s, researchers approached people in the act of using copying machines and asked if they could cut into the line and make photocopies. The experimental subjects were given different reasons for the request ranging from the sensible to the seemingly senseless, such as “because I’m in a rush” and “because I need to make copies.”

The researchers found out that compliance was higher when they gave a reason, even if the reason didn’t really make sense. The subjects responded to the context of the request and not necessarily the specific content. Simply structuring the question with an embedded reason was sufficient to gain compliance to the request. This phenomenon was not without its limits. As Langer explained, the rationale of “because an elephant is after me” didn’t cut it.

When marketers structure a request for people to choose their brand, they benefit from including a reason, any reason, even if that reason is the “sheeting action” of Cascade dish detergent or the trademark ingredient “Retsyn” in Certs mints. It contains just enough logic consistent with a claim for virtually spotless dishes or fresh breath.

So next time you are contemplating a new purchase be aware of this two-part process in action and the role of the critical mind — the part of the brain that plans behavior and decides whether or not to open the wallet or tighten the purse strings.


Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He applies unconscious behaviorism, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology to business.


About Donna L. Roberts, PhD

Dr. Donna Roberts has been involved in higher education at military bases for over 30 years, including both faculty and administrative positions. She has been with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 2003 and is presently assigned duties as the Department Chair for Social Sciences and Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences. As a faculty member Dr. Roberts has been involved in all aspects of the curriculum – from development to evaluation to delivery. Additionally, she has served as an Officer of the Faculty Senate and on various strategic University committees. Her research interests include media psychology, prison reform, human and animal rights, educational psychology and industrial/organizational psychology. Her background is in education and the social sciences with educational qualifications including: • Ph.D. in Psychology (Northcentral University) • MAS/MBA in Aviation (ERAU) • M.Ed. in Adult & Higher Education (University of Oklahoma) • M.H.R. (University of Oklahoma) • M.Ed. in Counseling (University of Maryland) Donna is originally from a small town in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York – Canandaigua (a Native American name that means “the chosen spot”). She currently resides in Europe with her husband and various rescue cats.
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