The fascinating science behind consumer choices

26 Jan 2018  |  Ellen Hammett 
The fascinating science behind consumer choices

The author of a new book examining the behavioural biases that influence what we buy tells Ellen Hammett how advertisers can make their campaigns more effective

From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we are faced with a countless number of choices and decisions to make. Some happen so quickly we don’t even think about them, while others are more conscious, and some we deem 'rational', and others...not so much. But by using behavioural science and social psychology, we can better understand how the complicated minds of human beings work.

There are lessons the marketing industry can learn from these disciplines too, and in his new book, The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy, Richard Shotton explains how behavioural science can be applied to advertising and how a few simple tricks can help marketers improve the effectiveness of campaigns and influence what consumers buy.

From impulsively ordering a slice of billionaire’s shortbread on the way to work, to bidding for a Game of Thrones box-set on eBay, Shotton - who spends his working days at Manning Gottlieb OMD as their deputy head of evidence, and who regular readers might recognise as a long-standing contributor to Newsline - follows a single person over one day and unpicks 25 key decisions they make - each of which can be explained with what social psychologists call a classic bias.

So what can brands, marketers and agencies learn from these biases?

“Advertising is essentially trying to get consumers to change their decisions - whether it’s paying a premium for a brand or switching from one brand to another,” Shotton told Mediatel.

“Behavioural science is the science of decision making, so if brands are going to effectively and cost efficiently change people’s minds, they need to know how those minds work, otherwise they risk wasting money on ineffective and inappropriate advertising.”

Too many marketers and agencies rely on what consumers say motivates them, but what they say and actually do are often very different things"

A lot of the academic evidence Shotton uses is old - the earliest bias of price relativity dates back to the 1890s - but Shotton’s research proves that the biases are still relevant to marketers today.

Take social proof, for example: the psychological idea that when we’re making a decision we don’t make it as an individual, but rather we are consciously, or subconsciously, influenced by what others are doing around us.

“At the moment, too many marketers and agencies rely on what consumers say motivates them, but what they say and actually do are often very different things,” Shotton explains.

“There is a problem that if you listen to what people say they will pretend to be maximisers in the market, they will pretend to be hugely rational, and they’ll underplay some of the irrational motivations for buying.”

Where behavioural science can help, Shotton says, is that it gives an accurate model of why people do the things they do and unlocks ideas and effective ways of changing people’s behaviour - whether that’s at the creative stage, the strategic stage, media stage or buying stage.

And given its robustness, with hundreds of biases to choose from, it can give advertisers an obvious competitive advantage.

On an ethical ground, I wonder if the biases are exploitative in any way, given that they can have such a huge impact on the decisions consumers make.

Shotton doesn’t think so - and says all behavioural science does is tell marketers the most effective way to sell something.

“I think there’s an overestimation of how powerful the biases are. Harnessing a bias makes people more likely to adopt a certain behavior. It doesn’t force them to do anything. You’re not forcing someone to pay more for a brand, people have a choice, they have free will,” Shotton explains.

“Secondly, behavioural science isn’t a deviation from some supposedly neutral way of selling. If you are posing any choice to a consumer, there is no neutral approach; there is no natural way of selling a car or a diamond ring. Any act of selling, even without the application of behavioural science, involves picking one approach out of the almost infinite number of tactics available to you.”

What it does come down to is what a brand is trying to sell - and Shotton says fooling somebody into buying a rubbish good with behavioural science is wrong; but not because of the behavioural science, “which is effective communication”, but because of the quality of the thing a brand is trying to sell.

Any advertiser has to think about the long-term,” Shotton says.

“If you bamboozle someone into buying a product that isn’t very good or that they don’t really want then you’re going to irritate consumers. So I think everyone has to think ‘are you nudging for the long-term benefit? Are you genuinely persuading someone about the underlying merits of your brand?’”

A lot of these biases are useful to consumers as well. Sticking with the example of social proof; buying something that is popular is a good strategy for avoiding purchasing anything that might be a bit shit.

But you’ll have to read the book, out on 12 February, to find out more.

The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy, published by Harriman House Publishing

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