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The Unconscious Side of Selling

Daryl Weber


How Psychology Can Help You Close the Sale


[A version of this article originally appeared in Hearing Specialist magazine]

We like to think of ourselves as conscious creatures. We move through the world feeling in control of our actions, our thoughts, and behaviors. But, how much of this is an illusion? We can leave the debate over free will to the philosophers, but most neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral economists now agree that we are subtly driven by our unconscious mind in many ways, probably far more than we realize.

Think about how much your unconscious mind is doing at this very moment. It’s holding your body upright, keeping you breathing, your heart pumping, and monitoring your surroundings, all without your conscious awareness. It’s also allowing you to easily read these words without having to consciously “look up” the definition to every word - you just automatically translate the symbols on the page (the letters and words) into the meaning in your mind, without having to think about it or try. Pretty amazing.

But the unconscious can even go a lot further than these mundane tasks. The famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrated this in his landmark study called the Iowa Gambling Task. In this experiment, respondents were given four decks of cards where each card had a either a cash reward or a punishment where you would lose money. The respondents simply had to flip over cards and try to win as much money as possible. However, two of the decks were rigged to be bad decks that had much worse penalties than the other two.

What they found was that it took respondents’ conscious minds about 80 cards on average before they realized that two decks were bad, and the other two were good. The unconscious mind, however, was able to pick up on this much faster. They measured people’s anxiety level as they did this task, and found that anxiety would go up when reaching for bad decks after only about 10 cards were flipped. This actually caused people to pick from the “bad” decks less often, without them even realizing they were doing so. The unconscious mind and its intuition were far faster and more effective at picking up on the trend than the slow conscious mind, and helped to steer us in the right direction.

Why is it then that we feel so in control? It turns out that the brain may actually create rational justifications for our actions to satisfy our conscious mind, even if it’s not the truth. For example, clever studies were done with “split brain” patients - those who had the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain severed to help control seizures. When scientists exposed a command to only the right half of the brain, such as “get up and walk down the hall,” the person would start to do it. But when they asked the left side of the brain that had not seen the command (and is the side that controls speech) why they had gotten up and started walking, the left side made up a justification that made sense and said things like “I’m getting my jacket” or “I’m going to get a Coke.” Amazingly, these weren’t said as guesses, and they weren’t seen as lies by the patients - they believed it to be true and stated it as fact. It seems the brain can even trick itself.

So in many ways, it seems our unconscious may be in control of our actions more than we realize. Rather than our conscious minds being the computer we think of it as, it may be more like a computer’s monitor, simply displaying the hidden work and decisions that come from the computer.

This also makes us far less rational than we like to think. Instead of consciously evaluating and weighing all of our options, the unconscious tends to fall back on quick assumptions and shortcuts - called “heuristics” - that help guide our decisions and behavior, usually without us realizing it.

This will clearly have implications for marketers and salespeople trying to persuade potential customers. We cannot simply sell to the conscious mind, we must also understand how the unconscious is working, as that may be the real customer we’re trying to reach. So let’s look at a few ways in which we can engage and sell to the unconscious, rather than always trying to rationally woo the conscious mind.

The Power of Metacommunication

As we saw in the Iowa Gambling Task, the brain is constantly scanning and learning from the world even if we don’t realize it. Just like it was able to monitor the cards in the decks, it is picking up on subtle cues in our environment that it can use to help guide our behavior to what’s best. When it comes to sales and marketing, this means that the brain is processing far more than just the conscious message you’re trying to get across. The unconscious mind is also paying close attention to how the message is said.

For example, if you were to pass a billboard for a fashion brand, say J. Crew, on the highway, you may very quickly forget the content of the message, and may even forget that you saw an ad for J. Crew at all, at least consciously. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that your unconscious mind saw the ad, processed it at some level, and while the conscious message may not stay in memory, the feeling of the ad is more likely to. So your brain may have picked up on the modern, cool fonts used, or the bold, vibrant colors, or the sly look on the model’s face. All this will add up to a perception and a feeling towards that brand that is now slightly altered in your unconscious memory. Your gut feeling, or intuition, for the J. Crew brand is now maybe that that brand feels a bit more modern, trendy, and edgy...but you wouldn’t know why. (For more on this, see my book Brand Seduction, where I describe a new model for how brands live in the unconscious based off of this gut feeling, called a “Brand Fantasy.”)

That is the power of metacommunication. Rather than the conscious, rational message an ad or salesperson may be trying to get across, metacommunication is the feeling communicated by all these other details and aspects around the message. And it’s that feeling that might matter more than the rational or conscious message. It’s like how you dress will say something about you, whether you intend it to or not. For a salesperson, how they talk and present themselves may matter more than what they say.

The brain is picking up on all those little details - your confidence, how you dress, the tone in your voice, your posture and body language, and more that all add up to a feeling they have about you and what you’re selling. And science is showing that it is those things that can be more important for closing the sale.

So when it comes to selling, we must realize that everything communicates, so make sure all of those details are saying what we want them to be saying to our prospect’s unconscious mind. Remember, how you say it is probably more important than what you say.

The Six Principles of Persuasion

Let’s now dig a bit deeper into some of the heuristics and shortcuts the unconscious uses to make decisions and see how they apply to sales and marketing. Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and the author of the groundbreaking book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, famously outlined six key principles that have been scientifically shown to boost persuasion. While most of these tactics make common sense, the trick is that as consumers we are often not aware of their effect on us. We think we’re in control and making our decisions based on justifiable facts, but as we’ve seen, that may not be the case. Each of these principles tend to work on us unconsciously, without our awareness for how they influence our behavior.

So let’s look at how each principle works, and how they can be used to help improve sales and marketing. It’s important to note that since these are powerful implicit tools for modifying behavior, we must take care to use them only for ethically and morally good causes.

1. The Principle of Reciprocity

When we feel someone has given us something or done us a favor, we have an innate desire to return the favor. We feel we owe them something back. An obvious example of this is the free samples we see in many grocery stores. Even though we often only take a very small piece, we’re now more likely to buy the product, or feel bad when we walk away. In fact, it has been shown that people who receive a free, unexpected gift are more likely to listen to a product’s features, donate more money, or leave a larger tip. These gifts don’t need to be expensive or even physical, information or favors can work as well.

Takeaway: Whenever possible, give something away for free. It makes you look good, makes people like you and want to help you, and makes them want to return the favor.

2. The Principle of Social Proof

We humans don’t like to go out on our own. We feel much safer in packs, and are more comfortable doing something that we know many others are doing as well. For example, when a hotel was trying to get people to reuse towels to be environmentally friendly, no amount of facts or figures made much of a difference. The biggest difference came when guests were told that most other guests of the hotel were reusing their towels. Clearly, we like to fit in. This is also why laugh tracks work on sitcoms.

Takeaway: Reviews, testimonials, endorsements, showing how many sales you’ve had, etc. all show that other people have trusted and gone with you. Use these techniques conspicuously and often.

3. The Principle of Consistency

Once we commit to a certain action, we like to remain consistent to it. We don’t want to be seen as backing out of a deal, or going against our word. That would feel dishonest and disloyal. Importantly, any small initial commitment can lead to larger actions. For example, when researchers asked people if they would vote in an upcoming election and to explain why, 100% said they would vote. On election day, 87% of those asked actually voted, compared to 61% who were not asked. Giving a public commitment to something makes us more likely to follow through on it.

Takeaway: Have your customers commit to something small first, even if that just means agreeing with a simple statement. Getting any kind of “yes” at first makes them more likely to act in agreement with that statement.

4. The Principle of Liking

People are more likely to be engaged and say yes to people they like, and one of the best ways to build liking in someone is to share similarities. Whenever we feel we have something in common with someone, we feel like they are on our side. Human nature has a deeply tribal sense to it, and we want to associate and do business with others that are in our “in group.” As one study showed, when direct mailings were from someone with a similar name as the recipient, response rates almost doubled.

Takeaway: It’s important to not just build a friendly rapport with prospects, but to find similarities that put you on the same side. Find similar interests, hobbies, sports teams, being from the same places, liking the same restaurants, etc. to help build familiarity and trust.

5. The Principle of Authority

We’re programmed to respect authority. Most people will do almost anything if it comes from what they perceive to be an authority figure. Things like credentials, business titles, clothing/uniforms, even driving a high end car, can all signal expertise and success. In a classic study by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in 1974, respondents were asked to administer electric shocks to a stranger, even when the stranger (really an acting accomplice of the researchers) seemed to be in great pain. Incredibly, these participants continued to give increasingly high current levels at the insistence of their white lab coat wearing researchers. They were torn, but went with what the authority figure was asking of them.

Takeaway: Strive to be an authority in your field, and an industry leader. Look to demonstrate your expertise in many ways, such as displaying credentials, how you act and dress, and using testimonials from recognized authorities in the field.

6. The Principle of Scarcity

If we can’t have something, we often want it more. It seems we never grow out of this childish urge. We also tend to worry more about losing something we already have, rather than gaining something new. So the fear of missing out on an opportunity makes the product much more valuable. This is why you see countdown timers on many offers online, or how they’ll say “only 2 more left!” They’re preying on our worry of missing out. It’s also why the value of paintings go up when the artist dies. The more scarce it is, the more value it has to us.

Takeaway: Create urgency, specialness, and scarcity in your products and services. Show that these items are in limited supply, that they are selling out fast, or that an offer is only available for limited time.

In addition to these six principles, there are many other heuristics that our brains take to quickly make decisions. For example, the “anchoring” effect causes us to evaluate information based on previously heard information. So if you hear one offer at $500, the next offer at $200 will sound much more reasonable than if the initial anchor offered was $50.

Amazon is a master at these principles. On one of their typical sales pages, you can see many of these in action. They give away a sample of the ebook to tempt you, and maybe make you feel like returning the favor. The number of reviews listed acts as social proof. Blurbs from well known authors or from The New York Times give the book authority. Saying “only 4 left” shows scarcity. And by showing the original list price and crossing it out, our anchor is set higher, making the actual retail price seem like a bargain in comparison.

Clearly, there are many things that influence our behavior and decisions outside of our awareness. Our brains evolved to help us make decisions quickly and easily, without too much time or energy spent on deliberation. This works well most of the time, but it’s not perfect, and it means we are not nearly as conscious or rational as we think we are. As marketers and salespeople, we will be in a much better position to reach our customers if we understand how these unconscious processes are working. The conscious mind still matters, of course. It just might be that the conscious mind will care more about finding a rational justification for its actions (like a product feature, benefit, or the sense that it got a good deal), while it’s actually the unconscious mind that’s holding the real power to make the decision. So if you can capture the unconscious, you’re much more likely to close the sale.