It’s been emotional

By BenAmbridge


We saw back in November’s blog that customers are not coolly logical, and instead base many of their decisions largely on emotion. That is, to use a metaphor popularised in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, they tend to use the fast, emotional part of the brain, System 1, rather than the slower, more calculating System 2.

Now, that’s all very well when you’re buying a meal, or a pair of trousers. But you would imagine that, when making a major purchase that costs hundreds or thousands of pounds (a new sofa say, or a new car) people would set aside their emotions and instead rationally weigh the costs and benefits of each of their options. Wouldn’t you?…


Logic v Emotion

Let’s a try a little experiment, based on one conducted by Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky…

A killer disease is sweeping the country! Government statisticians have figured that, with no action, the disease will kill 600 people. They have come up with two alternative treatment programmes, only one of which can be adopted. Which do you pick?

If you choose Treatment A, 200 people will be saved.

If you choose Treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that nobody will be saved.

Which would you pick? Treatment A, right? 70% of people make this choice, on the basis that it’s better to save a guaranteed 200 than to gamble on the 600. But suppose that, instead of the above, you had been offered the following choice:

If you choose Treatment A, 400 people will die.

If you choose Treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Now you choose Treatment B, right? We can’t condemn 400 people that we have a chance of saving?

But guess what? The two problems above were, mathematically speaking, exactly the same. In both, you have to choose between Treatment A, in which 200 are saved and 400 die and Treatment B, in which you might save all 600 (none dying), but you might save nobody (everybody dying). Where they differed was in the framing. In the first version, Option A appealed to your emotional side by saying “200 people will be saved” (neglecting to mention the 400 who will not). In the second version, it was Option B that appealed to your emotional side, by holding out the possibility that “nobody will die”. Your emotional response to Option A “400 people will die” (neglecting to mention the 200 who will not) was one of horror. Logically, the problem is exactly the same in both versions; it just feels different on an emotional level.

If your decision making is based more on emotion than on a logical weighing of the costs and benefits even when people’s lives are at stake, the same certainly holds when you are deciding whether or not to buy a particular sofa. The lesson for your site, then, is that if you want customers to purchase from you, it is no good appealing solely to their rational side, for example by offering more features, or a lower price, than your rivals. Whether you are selling treatment programmes or treadmills, sofas or safaris, lampshades or lifestyles, you will do so most effectively if you learn to appeal to your customers’ emotional System 1 side as it is involved in EVERY decision that you make, even those that might seem on the surface to be the most rational.


Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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