Top 10 Brain Tricks Behind Sales & How To Use Them

brain tricks main pic

Sales has changed a lot over the years. From a time when most sales were made face-to-face, we can now sell to millions of potential customers around the world. However, we’re still largely using the same techniques our great-grandparents used.

I’m a big believer that the principles stay the same, but when technology has changed the way we buy and sell so drastically, it’s time to bring selling into the information age.

To help, we’ve dusted off our lab coats and dug through the latest academic research on the science of buying and selling. Here are 10 research-based tips and tricks to help you sell more.

Trick 1 – Our brains love a deal

brain tricks: deal

What would you prefer to pay? Low prices or high prices? Would you rather pay more or less?
Deal or no deal?

What if I chucked a couple of coupons in? Would that change your answer?

Any sane, sensible person would choose the low prices, right? It’s obvious. That’s what Ron Johnson thought anyway. When he was hired as CEO at JCPenney, he had a grand vision for the company which included getting rid of the inflated prices, along with the coupons and sales, and replaced them with ‘fair and square’ prices.

The result? A total disaster. Sales plummeted and Johnson was later fired.

What went wrong? Why was transparent pricing such a bad idea? Why do we have such an attachment to coupons?

The latest research shows there’s a very real reason we’re so keen on getting a deal (even when it isn’t really a deal).

Investigating the neurophysiologic effects of online coupons, researchers recorded what exactly happened when participants used a $10 coupon. They experienced, among other results:

  • an 8% decrease in adrenocorticotropin (a stress hormone)
  • a 14% increase in oxytocin (also known as the ‘love hormone’ and the ‘cuddle chemical.’)
  • a 4% decrease in heart rate

The study noted the results indicated ‘coupons elicit physiological reactions similar to having a positive social interaction.’ In addition, the participants reported higher levels of happiness, correlating with the change in oxytocin levels.

Read through those results again, because they’re pretty incredible. People don’t just ‘like’ coupons; they have an actual physical reaction to them, like a drug.
Online coupons make people happier.


Before you start going crazy with the promotions, there’s been another study you should be aware of. This time researchers were looking into the effect price promotions had on buyers and loyalty.

Promotions are a common method for attracting new customers and increasing sales. So if I want an influx of new customers for my product, I run a sale. New customers decide to try it as it’s on offer, then carry on buying when the product returns to its normal price. That’s the theory, and it makes sense. But is it what actually happens?

The study aimed to quantify exactly how much a temporary price promotion would attract new customers, and if it would have an effect on whether they bought the brand again in the future.
The results may surprise you.

The study found the majority of buyers during a promotion had already bought the brand at least once in their last five purchases of the same category (77% to be exact, compared to 81% of normal-price buyers).

In other words, most of the people taking advantage of the promotion were already existing customers. Furthermore, they weren’t any more likely to buy the product after the promotion ends.
Does this mean you should never run a promotion? No, they’re still a valid way of generating sales, one that we use at Reply. Just be aware of the limitations, particularly when it comes to generating new customers and ongoing loyalty. The study concluded there was ‘little recourse to the idea they can result in “try it, like it, buy it again later” effects.’

Sources: Alexander, V., Tripp, S., & Zak, P. (2015). Preliminary Evidence for the Neurophysiologic Effects of Online Coupons: Changes in Oxytocin, Stress, and Mood. Psychology & Marketing, 32(9), 977-986

Dawes, J. (2018). Price promotions: examining the buyer mix and subsequent changes in purchase loyalty. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 35(4), 366-376.

Trick 2 – Our brains care a lot about what others think

brain tricks: what others think

We all like to think we’re rational human beings, capable of assessing and making our own decisions.

However, we rely more on others than we often realize. Whether it’s deciding what movie to see, planning our vacations or buying a product, we’ll look to others to help us make a decision. We’ll check how many people have also bought a potential product, we’ll read reviews, and we’ll sort results based on popularity.

To get a better idea of the effects others have on us, a study was carried out on ‘herding’ in relation to online product services. The results confirmed consumers used the choices and evaluations of others as cues for making their own decisions.

Big companies know this and take full advantage of it. Amazon includes the 5-star review right next to the product name and shows you the number of reviews. On a product page, they include what other customers buy after looking at the product. Netflix includes what movies and series are currently trending in their recommendations, so we can see what other people are watching.

It’s not all good news though. This study also found herding effects were significantly offset by negative comments from others. In other words, while good reviews have a positive effect, bad reviews have a negative effect. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a good reminder you better be confident in your product or service before adding the option to write reviews. If there are too many negative comments, it could hurt your sales.

Interestingly, the study concluded the recommendations of other consumers were more influential than recommendations from an expert; we want to know what people like us think. If you have the option, include fellow user reviews and testimonials, rather than from the experts.

Additional research was carried out into electronic word of mouth (otherwise known by the exceptionally catchy acronym eWOM). More specifically, researchers wanted to find out what made eWOM effective.

It turns out the actual content of the eWOM had no significant impact. Rather, the quality and quantity had positive results on consumer trust and whether they were likely to buy again in the future. They also concluded a participating factor, the intensity of the eWOM, had the greatest impact on repurchasing.

Sources: Huang, M. (2006). Herding in online product choice. Psychology & Marketing, 23(5), 413-428

Bulut, Z., & Karabulut, A. (2018). Examining the role of two aspects of eWOM in online repurchase intention: An integrated trust–loyalty perspective. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 17(4), 407-417.

Trick 3 – Our brains care a lot about our identity

Who are you?

Are you your job? Your social status or class? Your political or religious beliefs?

We’re particularly attached to how we identify ourselves; after all, it’s what we base most of our decisions on (at least when we’re not following the crowd, as in the last point).

It also can have an effect on our purchasing decisions.

Copywriters are well aware of the importance of focusing on benefits, rather than features. We’re not interested in what a product does; we’re interested in how it helps us do what we need to do. How does the product help us reach our goals? Now there’s evidence that products that help us reach goals related to our identity jump to the top of the queue.

The study found that when goals related to our identity are activated by a sales message, these take precedence over lower level goals. So, for example, if the message highlights the support of the fair-trade movement, activating that potential identity in customers, then that’ll become more important to them than lower level goals (such as whether the coffee tastes any good or not).

That means, if we can appeal to the right identity trait, it can become more important to the customer than even the product quality. By finding potential identities and activating them with the right messages, you can greatly increase the desire for your product.

Source: Xiao, N. (2017). How identity related goals moderate the role of attributes in product evaluation. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 16(6), e38-e49.

Trick 4 – Our brain love stories

brain tricks: love for stories

Imagine the scenario: You have a great product to sell, but no matter what you say, people aren’t buying. You’ve listed all the features, all the benefits, yet no-one seems to care. Over the next few months, you try every technique you can, but you fail to make a single sale. Time’s running out, and you’re about to give up when you suddenly find the solution: story-telling.

Of course, I could’ve just said storytelling is an effective way of getting the brain to pay attention. But what did you find more engaging? The fact, or the story?

We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years, and companies have recently begun to realize they’re a powerful method of selling. We pay more attention, engage more, and remember more with stories than we do with cold hard facts.

However, recent studies have looked into what type of stories are more effective. Traditionally, companies have chosen to use happy stories: Person faces challenge > person buys product > person solves challenge > person is happy.

Everyone lives happily ever after. It’s usually a safe bet, but it’s not always the most effective.

The research reveals that certain consumers had a more positive attitude toward the brand when the stories shared by the brand are ‘meaningful, rather than happy.’

For these people, stories with a sense of purpose matter more than a happy ending with butterflies and unicorns. What kind of people? The study concluded consumers with a ‘growth mindset’ were more likely to find meaningful stories effective, being able to accept stories that contained ‘negative emotions in positive pursuits entailed in meaningful, but not happy, stories.’

If your customers are particularly invested in growth (such as start-up founders and entrepreneurs) then look at what stories you tell. What’s the primary emotion?

Happiness is good, but meaning is better.

Source: Carnevale, M., Yucel‐Aybat, O., & Kachersky, L. (2018). Meaningful stories and attitudes toward the brand: The moderating role of consumers’ implicit mindsets. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 17(1), e78-e89.

Trick 5 – Our brains care more about transformation than information

brain tricks: transformation

While we’re on the topic of storytime, other studies have been done into effective message strategy, particularly when it comes to engagement on good old social media.

They looked into three particular types of message:

  • Informational – Let’s stick to the facts, sir.
  • Transformational – You might be this, but you could be that.
  • Interactional – What did you think about this?

The results found the transformational message strategy was the most powerful driver of consumer engagement. Informational and the interactional message strategies came in joint second.

In your social selling, focus on stories and messages that showcase your customer’s transformations. Before your product, they were just Bruce Wayne. Afterward, they were Batman. They were Bruce Banner, now they’re the Hulk.

Tying into the last point, customers aren’t buying a product or a service. They’re buying a better version of themselves. If your messaging supports that, if it demonstrates that transformation is possible, you’ll enjoy far higher engagement.

Even if you’re currently using informational and interactional messages, the study found that when you compliment these kinds of messages with a transformational message strategy, there was a significant increase in their effectiveness.

Source: Tafesse, W., & Wien, A. (2018). Using message strategy to drive consumer behavioral engagement on social media. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 35(3), 241-253.

Trick 6 – Our brains buy when we trust

brain tricks: trust

When you’re buying in person, trust is a huge factor. We consider the location, the person, their behavior, the goods, their condition, and so on.

If you’re buying an iPhone from the Apple store on the high street, you feel confident.

If you’re buying an iPhone from some guy in a hoodie in a back street, you probably don’t feel quite so confident.

While this is obvious in face-to-face exchanges, the same is true when we buy online. Whether it’s conscious or not, we’re looking for clues. Can we trust this site, or are they going to steal our credit card details?

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re a decent person with the best of intentions. You have a good product/service, and you’re not looking to rip anyone off. However, you may unintentionally be giving off the wrong signals, and those signals will cost you.

Investigating consumer trust online, researchers found that consumers considered lots of different factors, including:

  • Security
  • Privacy assurance
  • Website usability
  • Product information quality

Security and privacy are unlikely to be a big surprise as factors affecting trust; if Google is flagging your site as insecure, or if you’re asking for personal details without any mention of how you’ll protect their privacy, these are going to be red flags. However, the other two can easily be overlooked as trust factors. But if your UX and product descriptions aren’t up to scratch, it turns out that’ll affect trust.

In turn, trust affects whether people are likely to buy from you or not. The study found a clear link between trust and ‘the formation of positive attitudes and behavioural intentions’ toward the website.

Along with your product/service, make sure your site is giving off the right signals to inspire trust, and people will be more likely to buy.

Source: Chen, J., & Dibb, S. (2010). Consumer trust in the online retail context: Exploring the antecedents and consequences. Psychology & Marketing, 27(4), 323-346.

Trick 7 – Our brains think with our eyes

brain tricks: eyes

When we want to make a decision, such as what product we should buy, we literally look for clues. Even when appearance clearly has nothing to do with product quality, we give significant weight to what our eyes tell us.

Imagine you’ve just walked into a supermarket, or you’ve opened a shopping site. You see a display with three items stacked side by side. Which product are you more likely to buy?

While we’d like to think we’d make our decisions based on an independent assessment of each product’s features, we’ll look for visual clues or shortcuts. One study found these ‘clues’ include:

  • Size (apparently bigger does mean better)
  • Salience (or how noticeable something is)
  • Position (where the product is in relation to others)
  • Emotional Valence (or attractiveness)
  • Predictability (If the product follows the expected status quo or not)
  • The number of information elements (quantity, rather than the quality of information)

I found the studies regarding product positioning particularly interesting. Findings from two eye-tracking studies suggest products in the horizontal center received more visual attention and were more likely to be chosen.

How crazy is that? All things being equal, we’ll pick the item in the middle. The studies found we tend to look first at the central option, and as a result, subconsciously assign it a higher value. They also found what they called a ‘central gaze cascade effect.’ In other words, we’ll progressively increase the amount of attention given to the central option immediately prior to making a decision.

Together with the other visual elements, the studies found these biases lead customers to ‘allocate their attention in ways that are arbitrary to their goals and sometimes bias their choices.’

While careful planning can minimize some of these visual biases, others can’t be avoided. The research concluded that as a result, it’s ‘impossible to present information in a completely neutral way.’

That means, whether you intend it or not, the way you display your products is having an effect. Take this into account to promote the product you most want to sell.

Sources: Atalay, A., Bodur, H., & Rasolofoarison, D. (2012). Shining in the Center: Central Gaze Cascade Effect on Product Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 848-866.

L, O.J., Sonja, P.., & G, G.K. (2018). Visual Biases in Decision Making. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 40(4),

Trick 8 – Our brains are fussy when it comes to the amount of information

brain tricks: information

You may be familiar with the famous jam experiment made regarding choice. When psychologists experimented with small and large assortments of jam, they found that although the large displays attracted more attention, the smaller display led to more purchases.

What you might not know is the same applies to information.

We like to know the facts when we make a purchase. When you bought your last phone, you probably wanted to know the specifications; what was the screen size, how much memory did it have, how big is the storage, what quality was the camera, how long did the battery last, etc.

However, did you look at all the facts? Did you consider the number of capacitors? The individual weights of all the components? The baseband version of the OS?

When we’re selling something, our gut reaction is to provide customers with as much information and as many choices as possible. However, we now understand that people have a limited amount of attention to give. Our brain power is finite, and in an effort to preserve energy, it filters out information.

This is great for giving our brains a rest but has the downside that we’re not great at accurately assessing large amounts of information. When our cognitive resources are low and our attention is depleted, we discard what we perceive as excess information.

We’ll base our decisions on the obvious details and go with our intuition, potentially ignoring important information which is readily available.

Sometimes, we’ll make bad decisions.

The latest research shows we’ll overestimate the importance of the most obvious clues and disregard the less obvious, less immediate consequences.

As a result, we’ll focus on what affects us today and ignore future results. We might buy a cheap printer but disregard the expensive ink costs.

However, not all consumers are equal in this regard. The results of one study found that experts made better decisions in high-information situations.

As a result, salespeople should carefully consider the level of information needed for their customers to make the best decision, taking into account their relative expertise.

Sources: Houdek, P., Koblovský, P., Šťastný, D., & Vranka, M. (2018). Consumer Decision Making in the Information Age. Society, 55(5), 422-429.

Wu, L., & Lin, J. (2006). The quality of consumers’ decision‐making in the environment of e‐commerce. Psychology & Marketing, 23(4), 297-311.

Trick 9 – Our brains are connected to our heart

brain tricks: heart

We’ve already considered storytelling, and how meaningful stories can be more effective than happy ones (for particular customers). However, this shouldn’t be taken to mean emotions aren’t important in sales.

When we buy something, we’ll imagine what our future looks like as a result. We buy a holiday and imagine how happy we’ll be on that golden beach. We buy accounting software and imagine how relaxed we’ll be not having to worry about our tax returns. We buy a meal and imagine how satisfied we’ll be once we’ve eaten it.

When we’re projecting into the future like that, we get a hint of those emotions. We anticipate how a purchase will make us feel.

Results of research confirm those anticipated emotions have a huge influence on our decision whether or not to buy. To be exact, they affect our value perception of a product; if we think it’ll make us really happy/relaxed/excited, we’ll place a higher value on it.

What does this mean for sales? It’s important to identify what emotions your customers associate with your product. Focus your campaigns on building and emphasizing that emotional connection and you’ll never need to convince a prospect to buy.

Source: Bettiga, D., & Lamberti, L. (2018). Exploring the role of anticipated emotions in product adoption and usage. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 35(3), 300-316.

Trick 10 – Our brain associates more effort with more value

brain tricks: value

We all want the easy life, right? We often focus on making the buying process as straightforward and frictionless as possible. The fewer steps, the better. It makes sense, and companies make a lot of effort to reduce the number of steps needed to complete a purchase.

For example, Amazon allows their customers to buy with 1-click purchasing.

However, researchers have found that sometimes, this is a mistake.

A recent study provided evidence that the more effort consumers make to buy a product, the more they’re willing to spend on it.

For example, if a club has a long line before you get in, we’ll assume the club must be worth the wait. If sign-up for an app is by invitation only, we assume the app must be worth using.

Part of this is down to the psychology of sunk costs. If we’ve already put in time, effort, or money into owning a product or service, we’ll look for evidence to confirm we made the right choice.

If we’ve waited for hours to get into a club, we’ll ignore the over-priced booze and focus on the great music. If we’ve pestered our friends for weeks to get an invitation for a new app, we’ll ignore the obvious bugs and marvel at the amazing features.

We’ll do everything we can to justify the decisions we’ve already made.

There’s a lot to be said for making the buying process simple, particularly for commodity products with little variation.

However, the research shows it’s worth seeing what effect increasing the effort needed has on your sales.

Source: Lala, V., & Chakraborty, G. (2015). Impact of consumers’ effort investments on buying decisions. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 32(2), 61-70.

While the foundational principles of selling will never go away, changes in technology and the buying process mean we need to keep our strategies and techniques up-to-date. By using the latest research, you can stay ahead of the curve and outsell your competition.

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