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Scientific Studies in Persuasion

Thinking that the buying decision is a rational process is now known to be a naïve illusion. Marketers who ignore this fact do it at their own peril. Modern scientific discoveries offer copy writers proven ways to persuade.

Whole new branches of study within the field of cognitive psychology, such as behavioral economics and neuro-marketing, have developed to apply the new discoveries to the world of business.

We now know that there is in our brains a whole society of decision makers, sometimes called ‘subroutines’, that collaborate in decision making, including consumer behavior. Looking only at the rational part of the process is to ignore most of what’s going on beneath the surface of what only appears to be a rational process.

The parts of the brain primarily responsible for rational decision making are the cerebral cortex, especially the pre-frontal cortex. But brain imaging studies, such as fMRIs and PET scans, as well as other kinds of experimental tests, show that other areas of the brain are involved in the process and frequently dominate it. Parts of the “old brain” such as the amygdala and other parts of the limbic system play a big part and frequently take the lead in human decision making.

These parts of the brain, which are less evolved than the rational cerebral cortex, were originally thought to be involved in only emotional and survival behavior. We now know they are responsible for the “gut instinct” we often rely on, especially when making quick decisions and deciding under dangerous and threatening circumstances.

In the page on copy research, I wrote that with the new data that is now available, marketers no longer need to rely on gut instinct to make crucial decisions. But your customers do make decisions this way, so it is wise to take the new facts into account when crafting our advertising and other communication messages.

Good copy writers were aware of some of this knowledge for a long time. Twenty-five years ago I used the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in crafting ad copy. This resulted in very successful campaigns. For example, strong fear appeals work short-term but not long-term. People can’t get through the day with a strong fear gnawing at them as they attend to daily routines. This creates a cognitive dissonance until they let go of the fear.  But a weak fear can stay with him for a long time and continue to be effective.

Each experienced copy writer used some non-rational aspects of decision making when writing ads. But recently this has expanded widely. Now there are so many other discoveries we can employ, discoveries with a scientific foundation and that have been experimentally tested repeatedly.

Specific Use of  Behavioral Methods

The most obvious example is one that is critical for the writer. How you present a message is usually more important than the content of the message. If a doctor tells a patient that a certain procedure carries a 10% chance of death, few patients will want that procedure.  But if the doctor tells the patient that the procedure offers a 90% chance of survival, the percentage of patients who want the procedure goes way up. Even doctors react the same way to the two equivalent but different ways of stating the odds.

It has to do with how the brain deals with the process of facing serious loss. We don’t like to lose and are very conservative with taking chances that might result in a loss.  Much more than we want to win, we want to avoid losing.  Repeated experiments formulated in widely different ways all show the same result.

When the loss being considered is perceived to be catastrophic, this effect is even more pronounced.  Many people are afraid of flying, some excessively so.  Yet few people are afraid of riding in cars. You can show all the facts and statistics you like that clearly show riding in cars to be far more dangerous than flying in planes, but there’s usually no effect on people’s fears.

Another practical example has to do with the number of choices you offer a consumer. One experiment that has been repeated many times is to offer a “product tasting” such as jelly at a supermarket.  One tasting offered a small number of choices for the shoppers to taste and buy.  The alternative trial offered a much larger number of choices.  The second option was preferred by shoppers and drew more people.  But it was the first, fewer-choice option that sold much more jelly.  People like having more choices, but buy more when the process is less complicated.

When planning copy strategy and when writing up the copy itself, it pays to incorporate this knowledge of how people make decisions.