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I feel, therefore I buy: How your users make buying decisions

Words by: Natasha Wahid Last updated: June 1st, 2022 13 min. read

  • Behavioural Science

On June 19, 2016 the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The franchise, founded in 1970, had never won an NBA championship.

A few weeks after the Cavs’ victory, Nike released a spot called “Worth the Wait”.

As of this article being published, the video on YouTube has over 5.6 million views.

Every time I watch this video, my throat tightens and I tear up a little. I’m not from Ohio (in fact, I’m from a notorious rival state), the Cavs are not my team, I’m not even a huge basketball fan. But this ad makes me feel. It taps into something deeply human, feelings of community and triumph.

Nike is incredible at this. From their 2012 “Find Your Greatness” campaign to their 2014 ad for the World Cup “Winner Stays” (which has more than 40 million views on YouTube), Nike knows how to elicit emotion.

And it’s clear they spend big bucks to do it. Why?

Because Nike knows that we — consumers, people, humans — don’t buy products or services…we buy feelings.

Comfort. Acceptance. Power. Freedom. Control. Love. We are all longing to find satisfaction for our intangible desires. If you can provide a payoff for your prospects’ unspoken needs, you will find yourself handsomely rewarded.

– Chris Goward, Author, You Should Test That!

Further reading: If your shoppers buy emotionally, how do you 1) identify their core emotional drivers, and 2) optimize your marketing experiences for their emotions? Learn how in this post: Increase customer engagement by creating emotional marketing experiences


The old brain, the middle brain and the new brain

If you’re a marketer, chances are you’ve heard about the ‘old’, ‘middle’ and ‘new’ brains in relation to how we make (buying) decisions. The 3 brains refer to the structure of the brain in relation to its evolutionary history. Here’s a brief overview.

In the 1940’s, Paul MacLean popularized the triune brain theory, where he categorized the brain into 3 parts: Reptilian (old, sensory), Limbic (middle, emotional) and Neocortex (new, rational).


Our three brains

  1. The reptilian brain evolved first and controls the body’s core functions from heart rate to breathing to balance. It’s called the reptilian brain because it includes the brainstem and cerebellum (the main structures found in a reptile’s brain).
  2. The limbic brain came next and includes the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. This is the part of your brain that records memories of behaviors that produced pleasant or unpleasant experiences: it’s responsible for your emotions and value judgements.
  3. The last to evolve, the neocortex is credited with the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination and consciousness. It includes the two large cerebral hemispheres and has almost infinite learning abilities.

So, which of the 3 brains buys?

In classic economic theory, consumers are rational economic actors who make choices after considering all relevant information, using the new brain. While this may well hold true for large purchases, like insurance or a house, recent research has pointed to the power of our older brains in everyday purchase decisions (like buying that pair of Nikes).

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explained “…the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”

LeDoux is suggesting that our brain waves flow from old brain to new brain, meaning our decision-making processes are much less rational than we’d all like to believe.

Moreover, feelings happen before thought and they happen far faster.

We have gut reactions in three seconds or less. In fact, emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input. Quick emotional processing also happens with cascading impact. Our emotional reaction to a stimulus resounds more loudly in our brain than does our rational response, triggering the action to follow.

Emotions are powerful.

Neuroscience + Marketing

In recent years, the science dubbed neuromarketing has begun to emerge; it “bridges the study of consumer behavior with neuroscience”. The first piece of neuromarketing research was published in Neuron in 2004 by Read Montagne, Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Montague studied a group of people as they drank either a Pepsi or Coca Cola while their brains were scanned with an fMRI machine. The results suggested that a strong brand (like Coca Cola) could “own” a piece of a person’s frontal cortex.

This foray into the brain has opened new doors for marketers. In his essay “Neuromarketing: The New Science of Consumer Behavior”, Christophe Morin describes the model behind this new science:

What part of the brain does the “CocaCola” brand trigger?

The brain is responsible for all consumer behaviors…we only use about 20% of our brains consciously. Worse, we do not control the bulk of our attention since we are too busy scanning the environment for potential threats. Because nothing matters more than survival, we are in fact largely controlled by the ancient part of our brain know as the R-complex or the reptilian brain.

Morin goes on to quote neuroscientist Antonio Damasio who said, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” We are proud of our thinking abilities, but the fact of the matter is, our brains have relied on instinct for millions of years.

Research would suggest that we can optimize our marketing messaging by speaking to consumers’ reptilian brains.

ConversionXL published a great post on “6 neuromarketing stimuli that speak to the old brain” including:

  • The old brain’s self-centered nature
  • The old brain’s sensitivity to clear contrast
  • The old brain’s love of the familiar
  • The old brain’s responsiveness to openings and finales
  • The old brain’s affinity for visuals
  • The old brain’s responsiveness to emotional persuasion

And we’re back to emotions. To that Nike ad that makes me cry. And then really want some Nikes.

Note: Neuromarketing is not without its critics who voice ethical concerns akin to those that arose in the days of subliminal messaging. There are concerns that this research could lead to manipulation of consumers. It’s up to the marketing community to use this know-how to benefit the consumer first. With great knowledge, comes great responsibility.

System 1 and System 2

Dual-process theory is another cognitive theory about how we make decisions; it originated in the 1970’s and 1980’s and has been developed in more recent years.

The “dual” refers to the 2 cognitive systems we use everyday. In 1999, Professor of Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, Keith E. Stanovich dubbed the two systems (rather generically) System 1 and System 2 in order to label the 2 different sets of properties. The terminology stuck.

This table showcases clusters of attributes frequently associated with the dual-process theory of higher cognition.


Source: Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition

Characteristics to note within the intuitive process are fast, nonconscious, automatic, and experience-based decision making. In other words, our intuitive cognitive system is easier, requiring less focus and energy.

It follows that, if you can tap into your customers’ natural affinity for old brain, system 1 decision making, you’ll most likely see an uptick in conversions.

The level of dominance of each process at a particular time is the key determinant of purchasing decisions. Visitors are more likely to add a product to their cart when the emotional process takes control as they are directed by ‘how it feels’ and not ‘is it worth it.’…Advertising is above all a way to groom the emotional state.

What users want, what they really, really want

It happens often: during our Explore phase, a client’s users will tell us (via surveys and other forms of qualitative feedback) that they want more information to…well…inform their purchase. Users often vocalize a desire for more description, more specs, presumably so that they can make a rational, thoughtful decision.


Rational versus intuitive: How do you make decisions?

We also often have clients who come to us, assuming that their users need more information to make a purchase decision, particularly if their product is technically complex. And yet, time and time again, we test more information against a Control and more information looses.

Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.

Of course, you must take this suggestion with a grain of salt. Your users may, in fact, respond to more information versus less (we’ve seen that too!) but given all of the research that points toward “we buy feelings and rationalize our decisions later” it’s certainly worth testing more concise product descriptions, information hidden behind tabs, etc.

We can’t all be Nike, and Nike’s tactics certainly wouldn’t work for all of us. But when you’re considering your customers’ decision-making, be sure to take into account how you can up the feels.

In his book, You Should Test That!, Chris Goward discusses the “Intangible Benefits” of your Value Proposition. This is where the feelings associated with your brand sit. The question is, how can you highlight these intangibles?

Test video case studies and testimonials against written ones (visuals appeal to the old brain). Test copy that emphasizes your credibility and trustworthiness (alleviate consumer anxiety), test copy that emphasizes social proof (tap into consumer FOMO and yearning for community). Make your users feel: happy, sad, afraid, connected, angry.

Because we don’t buy things. We buy feelings.

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