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September 23, 2014 // 8:00 AM

5 Quirks of the Human Brain Every Marketer Should Understand

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brainThe human mind is an amazing instrument, but it certainly has its quirks and flaws.

The technical term for these flaws? Cognitive biases, which means irrational thought patterns -- trade-offs of the human brain that worked well for us as cavemen, but don’t always work in our favor today.

These brain quirks can seriously limit your marketing efforts, and even cause them to backfire on you. On the flip side, if you understand them, they can actually make you more successful. Here are the five brain quirks all marketers need to understand so they can help you, not hurt you.

1) Attribution Error

Humans have an innate tendency to explain the behavior of others in terms of their personality. It’s how we’re wired to think about things. The problem is this: We often ignore context and circumstances, attributing everything to a person or organization’s personality.

A landmark study by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris in 1967 showed the true power of the effects of this attribution error. The participants in the study were asked to read an essay that was either for or against Fidel Castro, and then asked how those authors felt about Castro.

Half of the participants were told that the essays were written by people who were free to choose their opinion. Obviously, these people said that the pro-Castro essays were written by people who were pro-Castro. No surprise there.

But the other half of the participants were told that the authors were forced into a pro- or anti- Castro stance based on an arbitrary coin flip. Surprisingly, these people still believed, on average, that the opinions stated in the paper were the author’s real opinions.

This has several important implications for marketers and PR professionals:

  • The “personality” of a company is very important in the consumer’s mind. The consumer believes that a company’s personality defines how it will behave toward them in the future.
  • Consumers will blame or praise companies for their behavior, even when the circumstances of the company are the fundamental explanation for that behavior.
  • A company that gets caught up in a series of unfortunate events will likely be considered more trustworthy if it takes responsibility for those events, rather than blaming their circumstances on an outside force -- even if a completely rational person would blame the company’s circumstances if put in that same situation.
  • A company can better demonstrate its personality through its actions, rather than through its words.

2) Confirmation Bias

Another quirk of the human brain is our tendency to explore information that agrees with our preconceptions and existing beliefs. In other words, we want to justify what we already believe, and we are more likely to dismiss information that challenges those beliefs.

The term “confirmation bias” was coined by Peter Wason in his landmark study, published in 1960. In the study, Wason gave participants a series of numbers: “2, 4, 6.” He then asked them to come up with ideas about what rule the sequence followed, and to devise tests to see if they were right.

The only rule the sequence actually followed was that the numbers were organized from smallest to largest. But the participants tended to come up with much more specific rules: “the numbers are even,” “they count by two's,” “the middle number is the average of the first and last number,” and so on.

More importantly, the tests they put together were designed to confirm their own suspicions. For example, if somebody believed that the rule was that the numbers were even, they would test the sequence “6, 8, 10.” This new sequence, of course, passed the test, so they would conclude that they were right, confirming their suspicions.

The rational way to test something, however, is to try to prove yourself wrong. If you believed that the rule was that the numbers are even, you “should” test something like “7, 9, 11” to see if it passed the test. If it did, you would prove yourself wrong so that you could start testing other ideas.

Subsequent experiments have shown that we tend to search for information in biased ways, interpret information in biased ways, and forget information that conflicts with our biases, especially when the subject matter is emotionally charged or controversial. We also tend to be biased toward the first information we encounter, disregarding later contradictions.

For marketers, this means:

  • First impressions are very important, because they will be used as the basis for how a consumer interprets the company in the future.
  • A good, strong first impression is hard to shake.
  • A consumer who has pre-existing mistrust of a company or the market in general (which is fairly typical) will require overwhelming evidence to change their mind.
  • A consumer will be more likely to trust a company that shares their values and beliefs.

3) Self-Serving Bias

This is a tendency to ignore information that challenges our ego. A good example is just how difficult it is to take criticism, even constructive criticism, and use it to your benefit.

The self-serving bias has been tested in a wide variety of settings. Laboratory experiments typically involve feeding participants randomized, bogus feedback on a task and then evaluating their response to the feedback. The results almost always indicate that people will attribute positive feedback to their own performance, and negative feedback to faults in the evaluation process.

While it might seem obvious that marketers should avoid assaulting the consumer’s self-esteem, it happens more frequently than you might expect. Here are a few noteable examples relevant to marketing:

  • The infomercial that insinuates a consumer doesn’t know how to fry an egg without destroying their kitchen is either going to be interpreted as an insult, or (more likely) ignored as irrelevant because consumers don't believe it applies to them because they don't think they're so stupid.
  • Blog posts and headlines that attack the reader for making a stupid mistake, or something similar. These frequently can work because they draw the attention of people who want to point out this flaw in others, but they very rarely work on people who actually exhibit the flaw.
  • Marketing that attempts to capitalize on a flaw of the consumer, like their body or appearance, is fairly common. It would be more effective if it was presented as a circumstance that victimized the consumer.

4) Belief Bias

This might sound like just another name for confirmation bias, but it’s actually a very different phenomenon. Belief bias is our tendency to reject conclusions just because they sound extreme or outrageous, even if the logic and evidence behind the argument are completely sound.

For example, experiments run by Evans, Barston, and Pollard in 1983 explored how people evaluated logical arguments. Half of the arguments had “believable” conclusions, and the other half had “unbelievable” conclusions. Overall, only half of them were logically correct.

But the participants believed 80% of the “believable” conclusions were based on correct logic, and that only 33% of the “unbelievable” conclusions were based on valid logic.

This bias has very important implications for marketers:

  • You can only get so far with logic if you are trying to persuade consumers of something that might seem unbelievable to them.
  • You will have more luck convincing consumers by making the conclusion seem more realistic than by making the argument to support it more rigorous.
  • A deal that seems “too good to be true” could easily hurt sales volume, even if the deal is genuine and you present all the evidence to prove it.
  • Logic is best used to justify a purchase that a consumer has already “agreed to” emotionally. While marketing shouldn’t completely avoid logic or rely excessively on emotion, it’s important to recognize that the consumer’s “gut reaction” has more influence than the logic does.

5) The Framing Effect (aka Loss Aversion)

The framing effect is our tendency to take risks when an outcome is presented as a loss, but avoid those same risks when an outcome is presented as a gain -- even when the objective outcome is actually the same.

The landmark study that discovered this effect was conducted by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. They asked participants to choose between two treatments for a disease.

In the positive frame, participants were asked if they would prefer a treatment that was guaranteed to save 200 out of 600 lives, or a treatment that had a 33% chance of saving everybody and a 66% chance of saving nobody. 72% of the participants chose the option that was guaranteed to save 200 lives. In the negative frame, participants were asked if they would prefer a treatment that would guarantee 400 deaths out of the 600 people, or a treatment that had a 33% chance that nobody would die, versus a 66% chance that everybody would die.

This simple change in framing didn’t change the outcomes of the treatments, but it completely changed people’s choices. Only 22% of the people were willing to choose the treatment were 400 people would die, even though this implied that 200 would live.

This study has since been critiqued for its phrasing, but various later experiments have demonstrated that the effect is real. In general, when an outcome is phrased as a loss, we take risks. When the exact same outcome is phrased as a gain, we want the surefire option.

Here are the implications for marketers:

  • Marketers have certainly understood this to an extent by using the language “Save 25%” as opposed to “Pay only 75%.”
  • The principle applies to your USP and value propositions as well. A product that helps you “stop eating foods that make you fat” will likely do better than a product that helps you “start eating foods that make you lose weight" -- although, of course, these messages will appeal to different audiences, as well.
  • Similarly, blog posts that advise consumers how to avoid loss or pain will likely be more eye-catching and motivating than blog posts that advise consumers how to find pleasure or satisfaction, provided those same blog posts do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with self-esteem (see the self-serving bias above).

The marketer who understands these quirks of the human brain, and keeps them in mind as they strategize, will have an edge over oblivious competitors. And just remember -- you’re not immune to them, either.

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