The Science Of Influence:
Making Customer Decisions Easier By Using Behavioral Engineering
by Mai Tolentino

  • Behavioral Engineering

    Decisions are among the key elements of our lives. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from, you make thousands of decisions every day.

    Most are relatively inconsequential–are you having coffee or tea or something else? Others are more complex–should you accept a new job? Move to a different city? These types of decisions perhaps weigh more heavily than the decision of what to drink because they can impact your life in many ways. These types of important decisions will shape your future or, in the marketing world, your brand’s future.

Behavioral scientists say that even though people seem like they make irrational decisions, there’s a method to the madness of decision making. There are predictable patterns to human irrationality, and once these patterns are understood, they can be used to design environments that help people make better, faster, or easier decisions. Any time you design a space where a human must make a choice, whether it be a product website or a retail store, you are creating what behavioral scientists call the “choice architecture.” And no matter how you design your choice architecture, you will be influencing people’s decision making—intentionally or not.

First, let’s understand some psychological and behavioral factors that shape the way we think and act.

  • Status-quo bias: People tend to think a certain way, without even realizing it. Have you ever avoided switching cell phone providers, even though you were unhappy with your current service? This is an example of our tendency to stick with what we know, instead of choosing something new and different–seeing the alternative as a risk or not worth the effort, even if it might be better in the long run. Without realizing it, we can be overly resistant to change.
  • Anchoring bias: People tend to rely on the first piece of information they are given about a topic or a brand. For example, when you see a t-shirt that costs $500 and then find a second one that costs $100, you’re prone to perceive the second t-shirt as more of a bargain.
  • Choice overload: Stress can have an impact on the quality of our decisions and on our ability to make them. Take a well-known study about jam, where researchers set up two displays offering free samples of jam. One display gave customers 6 flavor options, and the other display gave them 24 options. The larger display attracted more people, but they were 6 times less likely to ultimately buy a jar of jam. Customers have such a hard time comparing 24 flavors that they are less likely to choose anything at all. Too many options can paralyze choice, meaning that many potential customers may choose to walk away empty-handed, rather than deal with the stress of choosing from a large selection or the fear of making the wrong (or less than optimal) choice.
  • Decision fatigue: Making many decisions over a prolonged period of time can be a significant drain on customers’ willpower. They may have a harder time saying no to trivial things or saying yes to those things that would upset the status quo. This decision fatigue makes it difficult to even think about making decisions, let alone determine what may be right or wrong. Customers with decision fatigue tend to follow the path of least resistance because it’s the easiest thing to do when exhausted.

So, how can you help ease decision making for your potential customers? This leads me to Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model, which presupposes that behavior is a function of the environment and the behavior repertory of individuals. This means that management and marketing professionals can utilize strategies to optimize the behavior of potential customers by providing the appropriate instrumentation, motivation, and information to support the environment and guide the behavioral repertory towards consideration and purchase.

Here are some guidelines that can optimize your understanding of customer behaviors through different market-research methodologies. This list aims to create an intentional choice architecture to facilitate easier decision making for your customers and help them to ultimately choose your product as their default choice.

  • Instrumentation: Understand your customers’ needs and wants to provide the right products to the right people, in the right way. This requires a deep understanding of why customers buy your products or services, if and why they buy from your competitors, what excites them about your offerings and/or what could be better, and what they would like you to offer that you don’t. Deep understanding often comes from in-depth interviews or focus groups. Concepts developed from these qualitative methods should then be tested in order to use diagnostic feedback to refine the ideas and to choose the product that will have the best success in the marketplace.
  • Motivation: Targeting a segment that is likely to be interested in your offering, with a message that is developed with them in mind is much more effective than targeting an overly broad audience. That is, precisely targeting your communications increases engagement by using your customers’ own words in marketing materials and focusing on what they want (or want to know), which helps your product become more relatable. Therefore, using segmentation to identify which consumer groups to target helps focus your limited resources. Then, testing your messaging claims and advertising campaigns to determine what resonates most with your targeted segment(s) will yield communications that make consumers more likely to buy because you tell a story that echoes their beliefs.
  • Information: Fully utilize the last moment of opportunity to influence consumers through your brand’s packaging. Your packaging should grab their attention, swiftly communicate the product’s key or unique features, and fit with the brand’s image. Testing packaging options to optimize your prototype will ensure that your product stands out and is presented in a way that will persuade and resonate most with targeted segments.

In this day and age, we are inundated with information and many choices at our fingertips. Add stress, the fear of making the wrong decision, or fatigue in making a purchase decision to the equation, and it can be overwhelming for the consumer to choose anything at all. Decision Analyst is your partner in identifying where you can make your customers’ choices easier by using research to support behavioral engineering architecture for your products.

About the Author

Mai Tolentino is a Research Manager at Decision Analyst, and she welcomes feedback and comments. She may be reached by email, or phone at 1-817-640-6166.


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