5 more psychological secrets of the human mind every marketer should know

by Zoe K
Man sat in chair

Psychology is the study of the human mind. How we think. How we feel. How we act.


The information we learn from the study of psychology can have an incredible impact on how we market a brand.


We’ve previously looked into 5 psychological secrets of the human mind every marketeer should know, and thought it was time to uncover some more.


Some of these might surprise you. Some might make you think differently.


Some might just give reason to what you already know.


Regardless, these studies and their findings will impact the way you market.


1. Variable Reinforcement (random rewards)

We value rewards given randomly more than consistently.

Variable Reinforcement? What the devil is that?


It is probably easier to start by explaining what the alternative is; fixed-ratio reinforcement.


Take coffee stamp cards. How many do you have in your wallet or purse?


Who doesn’t have a million of these?


Me? I’ve 6. In fact, I have got 3 for Costa alone!


You see, coffee stamp cards are a perfect representation of fixed-ratio reinforcement. Buy 10 coffees, get one free. It’s a fixed notion, you don’t get the reward until you have undertaken a fixed set of activities.


The idea behind them is to incentivise customers into coming back. Makes sense, right?


So why do I have 3 stamp cards for Costa?


Well, it turns out that the fixed-ratio reinforcement method is not the most efficient way to incentivise customers.


In the 1950s, Psychologist B.F. Skinner pioneered research in the field of learning and behaviour. His findings help identify positive and negative reinforcement in learning.


Whilst a lot of his work has a great impact on marketing, one area that particularly stands out is his study of schedules.


Schedules are centred around when someone would get rewarded for positive behaviour.


In one area of study, he compared the number of times a rat would pull on a lever by the frequency of when the rat would receive a treat.


In the first scenario, the rat would receive a treat every 5 presses of the lever – fixed-ratio reinforcement.


In the other, the rat would receive a treat at random – variable reinforcement.


The results found that the rat pulled the level far more during the variable reinforcement compared to the fixed-ratio reinforcement.





The rat was constantly looking for patterns to make sense of its environment, and humans are the same. Even when patterns do not exist, our minds will create them. That’s the origin of superstitions, and who hasn’t got some lucky pants?!


The randomness of variable reinforcement creates a challenge for your brain, to try and discover that pattern.


If you know pushing a lever 5 times leads to you getting a reward, then you’ve solved that pattern and you know that if you want a reward, you need only push the lever 5 times.


However, if the reward is given to you at random, your brain struggles to create a pattern. It wants to know what the pattern is. So, it keeps pushing the lever to try to find that pattern, even if there isn’t one.


How can this be applied to marketing?


Randomise your rewards to customers. Instead of waiting for them to collect 10 stamps on a coffee card, offer them a free drink randomly.


Remember getting free toys in your cereal boxes? This was cereal brands taking advantage of variable reinforcements. It was an attempt to encourage us to buy more for a chance of winning.


2. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon/Zajonc’s Mere Exposure Theory

We notice that we notice things. Even if it was a mere exposure.

I must start this point with an admission. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is one of my favourite psychological facts. Why? Because when I first learnt about Baader-Meinhof, I ended up Baader-Meinhoffing myself with Baader-Meinhof.


So, what is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?


Have you ever had that occurrence where you learnt something new, or read about something, probably talked about something with a friend, and then, suddenly, you start noticing it everywhere?


When you watch TV, there is an advert about it.


When you go to the shop, you see it on front page of a newspaper.


When you go on Facebook, everyone seems to be posting about it.


I don't always hear about the Bader-Meinof Phenomenon, but when I do, it's after I just learned about it.


I’ve recently had this exact scenario around Locusts. It came up in conversation with a friend. All of a sudden, I’ve spent the last two weeks seeing news articles about Locusts. Had other people mention them to me. Had pictures of Locusts pop up as I’m browsing the internet.


It seems like too much of a coincidence. What is going on?


That’s The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (aren’t you happy you’ve got a name for it now?)


But what is going on?


Basically, it is a frequency illusion as a result of two different processes happening in your brain. Your mind is struck by the original information – this might be a new word, thing, or idea.


After that, your mind is unconsciously keeping an eye out for it. This is called selective attention. Then good old confirmation bias kicks in – the second process. This reassures you that each time you see this ‘thing’, it is just further proof that this ‘thing’ has gained overnight omnipresence.


This can then cause a loop whereby your mind kicks the selective attention process into overdrive, to help further reinforce your confirmation bias. Fun right?!


But this exposure can be incredibly beneficial for brands and marketing.


Now it’s time to introduce you to Zajonc’s Mere Exposure Effect.


In 1968 Robert Zajonc wanted to explore the impact mere exposure can have on people. He showed a group a series of meaningless Chinese characters. The group were told that some of these symbols represented positive adjectives whilst others represented negative adjectives.


Some of the characters were shown to the participants for a longer period of time than other characters. The results showed that characters that were shown for longer, were seen more positively than the other characters.


How can this be applied to marketing?


Simply put, expose people to your brand. More importantly, do not be afraid to repeat your message.


There is a famous guide by Thomas Smith written in 1885 called Successful Advertising. The rules of this guide still apply today as that did over a century ago:

“The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.

The second time, they don’t notice it.

The third time, they are aware that it is there.

The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.

The fifth time, they actually read the ad.

The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.

The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.

The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”

The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.

The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.

The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.

The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.

The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.

The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.

The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.

The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.

The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.

The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.

The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.

The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.”

The methods change, but the rules of advertising and brand awareness still apply. The more exposure to your brand people have, the more positively they will think of it, and the more business you will get.


3. The Decoy Effect

Our preferences can be influenced when presented with less attractive options.


Let’s get back to basics with some marketing 101. You’re probably familiar with the marketing mix; Product, Place, Promotion and Price.


It is often assumed that marketing just falls into the Promotion element, but, strong marketing involves all these four elements.


And you can find psychological studies out there that can influence Product, Place and Price.


Let us take Price and introduce you to The Decoy Effect.


If you have had the opportunity to research The Decoy Effect before, you’ve probably stumbled across the brilliant story by Professor Dan Ariely regarding The Economist’s subscription pricing.



If you haven’t seen it, Ariely was curious about why the subscription page on The Economist website had the following:


  • Web Subscription – $59
  • Print Subscription – $125
  • Web & Print Subscription – $125


Looking at that, it seems like a superb deal for a web and print subscription. But Ariely wanted to know why the print subscription and the web & print subscription were both the same price. Was it an error?


After contacting The Economist, he basically got passed pillar to post, getting no answer until he noticed the page had been removed.


Still curious, he decided to run an experiment on his MIT students.


He asked 100 students to choose a subscription option based on the three choices listed by The Economist. The results:


Web Subscription – $59 (16 students)

Print Subscription – $125 (0 students)

Web & Print Subscription – $125 (84 students)

Total revenue: $11,444


Nothing surprising there, right? It’s clear that no one would opt for the print-only subscription.


So, Ariely decided to run the experiment again but this time decided to remove the print-only subscription. These are what the results looked like:


Web Subscription – $59 (68 students)

Web & Print Subscription – $125 (32 students)

Total revenue: $8,012


Amazingly there’s a 30 per cent difference in sales. All because an option that no one would ever be interested in was there.


Crazy right?


The “print-only” subscription was having a decoy effect on the customer – causing them to judge the web & print subscription to be better valued than either of the other two. Remove that, and suddenly that subscription package lost value.


Once you are aware of the decoy effect you’ll start seeing it in a lot of places.


Back to coffee shops – they are a perfect real-life example of where you may see the decoy effect being used. Many coffee shops will have a Small, Regular, and Large size; potentially priced as such:


  • Small – £2
  • Regular – £4
  • Large – £4.50


Here we can see the Regular price being used as a decoy to sway your purchasing decision to Large.


Of course, the decoy effect doesn’t necessarily have to be used to get people to spend more. It can also be used to the benefit of the consumer too.


For example, Dr. Christian von Wagener used the decoy effect to help encourage people to make healthy decisions. In his study he was exploring ways to increase cancer screenings.


Originally the study participants were greeted with two options:

1. To arrange an appointment

2. To not arrange an appointment

In this situation, many people chose not to go to a screening.


He then added a third option; an appointment at a less convenient location (i.e. in another city).


The results saw a greater uptake to arrange an appointment because the third new option made the second choice look far more convenient and appealing.


How can this be applied to marketing?


It should be noted the decoy effect does have a certain ethical warning attached to it. Care should be taken when applying it, so to not manipulate potential customers negatively.


That said, it can also be a great tool in assisting customers on what delivers a better deal for them. It can best be used when comparing different options in product feature lists to identify the best value.


4. Framing Effect

We react differently when we perceive a situation to be a loss or a gain.

If you have read our previous article on Psychology secrets that every marketer should know, you would know how powerful the words you use can be and the research completed by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer in 1974 that explored whether there was an interaction between language and memory.


But there have been plenty more studies into how using words can impact our mind.


In 1981, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman wanted to explore how ‘framing’ choices can affect people’s decisions. The study explored whether people would alter their choices in a hypothetical life-or-death situation based solely on a phrase being ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.


Participants of the study were asked to pick between two different treatments for 600 people affected by a disease.


In the first instance, Treatment A was presented positively as saving 200 lives. Whilst Treatment B was presented as “33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that everybody will die.”


In this case, Treatment A was chosen by 72% of the time.


Then Treatment A was presented negatively, “400 people will die”, with the same choice for Treatment B.


The results saw Treatment A being chosen only 22% of the time.


This is interesting because the outcome of Treatment A is the same in both cases. The only change is how it is phrased.


And this is the framing effect.

The way we decide to portray information, in either a positive or negative way, can have an impact on how we interpret the information, and the decisions we make.

The framing effect can be used to decide whether we want to use a positive or negative message for the desired reaction.


For example, if we were marketing a meat product, we may decide to frame it as 95% lean rather than 5% fat to promote the positives over the negatives.


And framing effect can even be used to change behaviour.


Let’s say for instance you were running a public health campaign to encourage more people to wear a seatbelt.


You could phrase the messaging in a positive way such as:

“Seat belts save more that 15,000 lives every year”

Or you could phrase it as:

“More than 5,000 die every year because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt”

Which do you think would have more impact on the viewer?


How can this be applied to marketing?

The framing effect is an essential part of marketing. Using clear, concise content will have a direct impact on how your audience reacts. In most cases, you will want to utilise positive framing so that readers can see a clear gain.

However, there may be times when you want to employ negative framing, so readers understand the potential losses.


5. Asch’s Conformity Paradigm


Our behaviour changes to be like others.


Humans are social creatures. Even though we hate it, we spend more time than we wish thinking about what other people think of us.


But this makes sense. Because we are social creatures, we know there’s safety in numbers. Therefore, we have a drive to try and fit in. To conform with those around us.


Even if we hate it. Even if we know we shouldn’t.


But how powerful is the drive to conform to others?


In 1951, Solomon Asch decided to find out.


Can group pressure override even the most obvious of facts?


In his experiment, participants were placed in a group alongside some other people. But the other people were, in reality, stooges hired by Asch.


The participant (and stooges) were shown a card with a line on it.


Easy enough.


They were then shown a second card with three lines on it labelled A, B, and C.


They were then asked to say aloud which of the three lines was the same length as the first line that had been shown.


“Which line matches the length of the first line?”



It is obviously Line A.


But the stooges were all told to say Line B.


What would you do? Stick with the evidence right in front of your nose or go along with the crowd?


The experiment itself involved the participants going through various mixtures of these experiments.


Overall, though, believe it or not, 75% of the participants went with the crowd on one or more occasions.


They actively went against their senses and conformed with the crowd.


Could it get any stranger?


Actually… it can.


In a subsequent experiment, Asch decided to introduce a ‘dissenter’ amongst the stooges. Someone who, rather than saying Line B, would say the correct answer.


When a ‘dissenter’ was added to the group, the rate at which the participant conformed with the crowd dropped to 5%.


If you’ve ever had a chance to watch the cracking show Brain Games on Disney+ (and I totally recommend it), they explored how conformity can be passed on by groups in this alternative take on Asch’s experiment:



In it, a participant enters a waiting room filled with stooges. A beep noise goes off randomly. At the sound of the noise, all the stooges stand up from their seats and then sit back down.


It only takes 3 occasions of this happening before the participant also begins to join in.


Then they start removing the stooges one-by-one.


And when alone, the participant continues reacting to the beeping noise.


Wait – there is more!


After this, new participants enter the waiting room. They see her reaction to the beep and, slowly but surely, all the new participants begin reacting to the beep without any idea as to why.


This level of conformity stems from learning actions from social cues – we’re social creatures remember!


Doing so rewards our minds even when we don’t know why.


How can this be applied to marketing?


Conformity impacts people’s ability to evaluate your business. The more social proof you can attach to your brand – reviews, testimonials, client logos – the more new customers you will attract.


Equally, by gaining likes, shares and comments on your social media – the more interaction people can see others’ having with your brand, the more inclined they will be to ‘conform’ and try to hop onto the bandwagon.


Building a community of followers is the first step for attracting new business. Once people join, that will lead others to be interested and also join.




These 5 studies just go to show how relevant psychology can be for marketing. And that by constantly learning the outcomes of psychological studies, we can market more effectively in all areas of the marketing mix.


Ready to get started?

Our team of creatives work together in a wide range of disciplines, meaning we’re able to craft beautifully bespoke creative that will produce results you’ll love!


    Comp no: 8029008 VAT no: 160434535