Behavioural myth busters: audience decision making

06 Nov 2018  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Behavioural myth busters: audience decision making

Using behavioural science, William Hanmer-Lloyd explains why ad targeting should be far more focused on context, mood and recognition of our flawed decision making

The last edition of behavioural myth busters outlined why self-reported data should stop defining the strategies of clients, media, research and advertising agencies.

The issue doesn’t stop with the fact that audiences misreport their own data. Advertisers also make assumptions about people based on preconceptions of their character – such as their age, hobbies and gender – and will then assume that these assumptions will hold true consistently. This is wrong on multiple levels.

Moral licensing

Firstly, our behaviour is not always consistent with our intentions. For example, people who have recently signed up to green energy are slightly more likely to have an affair. This is because of an unconscious bias called moral licensing; where the more morally ‘good’ decisions we make that improve our self-image the less we worry about making morally ‘bad’ decisions.

This impacts numerous areas of our life. People who go to the gym are in fact more likely to put on weight than lose weight, allowing themselves to indulge in more treats because they feel they have earned it with their good healthy behaviour. Similarly, if someone starts taking vitamin pills they are in fact likely to eat more unhealthy food, exercise less and engage in more wild nights out.

This shows that consumers’ future decisions are often the exact opposite of what a top line reading of their recent previous behaviour would suggest.

Our mood changes our decisions

People will also change the decisions they make based upon the mood they’re in. This insight is captured by a study that shows that the stock market performs better on sunny days (across 26 countries), because traders are happier or more upbeat and it impacts their investing decisions. Conversely, a stock market also performs worse after a nation’s football team gets knocked out of the World Cup as the mood worsens.

As our mood changes, it impacts what we think about, the depth of thought we give things, and what our implicit goals are. This means that the same people can produce very different decisions depending upon their mood.

For example, sadness changes our risk-seeking and altruism behaviours. When we’re sad, we are more likely to take high risk high reward options, accept short term offers over long term benefits - such as choosing a free gift with a more expensive insurance option - and to give to charity. This is because while in a depressed mood we are more likely to exhibit increased generosity as a form of immediate, short term, self-image self-gratification (over the long term benefit of having the money) to help improve our mood now.

Finally, our mood has a massive impact on our likelihood to indulge in impulse purchase. Boredom, excitement, sadness and intoxication all increase our likelihood to give in to impulse purchases.

Interestingly, in a study women were twice as likely to make impulse purchase as men when they were sad, but men were twice as likely to make impulse purchase when intoxicated. Maybe we can theorise that when men get sad, they first get intoxicated and then make impulse purchases.

Context changes our decisions

Many behavioural science experiments show that consumers will change their decisions around what they will pay, what they will buy, and what they will do, in slightly different contexts or when information is presented to them in marginally different ways.

A favourite example of mine is that consumers will pay far more for cookies that are in an empty jar than a full jar, as they perceive the cookies as scarce and the socially popular choice. This is despite the fact that we would assume that consumers have a fixed sense of how much they were prepared to pay for an item as ubiquitous as a cookie.

Stop thinking about audiences as static

This research represents a modified way of thinking about consumers, and is especially relevant when deciding who is and isn’t targeted, or who is targeted with different creative messages.

For example we may classify someone as not a charitable giver, when in fact when feeling low would be very likely to contribute. We even classify people by whether they will pay more for higher quality products, when in reality what they will pay varies by how the choice is presented.

As such our targeting, and general understanding of consumers, should be far more focused on context, mood, and recognition of the variability of human decision making, than on creating fixed long term audiences that define people into consistent patterns of behaviour that are not reflective of the real world.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. He contributes monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry.

Part one: Why is behavioural science important to advertising?

Part two: Behavioural myth busters: Self-reported data

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