I seriously hate clothes shopping. Every time I have to go buy a new pair of jeans, I put it off for as long as possible. I hope against all the hope that somehow, the holes in my current pairs will magically patch themselves, that the dye will resaturate as they sit faded and grey in my closet. So far, my wardrobe hasn’t been very cooperative.
Why is shopping such a traumatic experience for me? Because buying a pair of jeans isn’t a rational endeavor. Making a purchase decision is fraught with irrational social and emotional triggers that make me want to hide in a changing stall and never ever ever come out again.
While I may have more issues than the average consumer, we humans have a baseline set of shared psychological tendencies. And these tendencies have a direct impact on how we decide which products and services to purchase.
Let’s dig into 5 key psychological factors that contribute to consumer behavior. For an even more in-depth exploration, check out this interactive infographic created in partnership with MarketingProfs.
Principle 1: Pain Avoidance
This principle was first codified by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his bestseller, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion:
The psychological fear of losing something or experiencing pain is twice as strong as the potential to gain or improve something.
Even though I hate shopping, the potential pain of being publicly mocked for having ratty looking jeans is motivation enough to make a purchase. Pain avoidance in action, ladies and gentlemen.
Principle 2: Status Quo Bias
People generally prefer status quo—even if they say (or their actions suggest) they’re open to new ideas or ways of doing things.
When I find a brand of jeans I like, I don’t want to explore new offerings, even if they might be better. The status quo seems less risky than trying something different—especially after I spent an hour trying on jeans the last time I went to a store.
Principle 3: Reciprocity
People generally feel indebted to those who do something for them without asking for anything in return.
My status quo bias would normally keep me from flirting with other purveyors of jeans. But if a retailer offered me, say, a free pair of jeans when I made my first purchase, I might be tempted to try them out. If I liked them, I would feel indebted to the brand for giving me a second pair of great jeans. Just like that, they’ve hooked me in with reciprocity. The next time I need to go shopping, guess where I’m likely going to buy jeans?
Principle 4: Social Proof and Acceptance
We generally value the opinions and ideas of people like us more than those who aren’t, and we feel greater compulsion to act when we see others like us taking action.
I do this clever thing where I’ll strategically complain that I hate shopping to a friend whose style I really like, in hopes that she’ll give me a good recommendation. I’m not only looking for social proof before trying a new brand—I’m also looking for an opinion from someone who’s like me, or whom I want to be like. Pretty sneaky, huh?
Principle 5: Scarcity and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
When we fear that something is scarce, we feel compelled to act—buying, stockpiling, or experiencing that thing before it’s gone.
I’m a retailer’s worst nightmare. I’m that girl who put items in an online shopping cart and then abandons it way more often than I actually complete a purchase. I don’t like pulling the trigger unless I absolutely need something.
One thing that always gets me is when a retailer has a “X items left in stock” counter on their product page. When I see there are only a few of an item left, I start to get a little bit of FOMO. On a retailer like ModCloth, which stocks styles often sold for just a few weeks, I get a lot of FOMO. And I usually end up buying the item right then, instead of bouncing and being stalked by retargeting ads.
The Bottom Line
Consumers aren’t rational beings. Every purchase decision they make—whether they’re buying a pair of jeans or a software program for their department—is based on a set of psychological biases that are woven into the fabric of our collective consciousness. As marketers, it’s our job to keep these biases in mind when crafting messaging and stories to inspire, educate, and move our audiences to action.