4 Creepy Psychological Sale Tricks

February 4, 2016

You may think you’re in control of your buying decisions, but you’re actually being subtly manipulated by marketing tricks.

The human brain is a powerful reasoning machine, but it has its Achilles’ heels. These mental shortcuts help us navigate the enormous amount of information we’re exposed to at any given time, without feeling paralyzed.

And companies are aware of these pitfalls.

Here are a few of the ways marketers use psychology to get you to buy stuff:


Priming is the process by which being exposed to one thing can influence your response to another thing. For example, you’d be quicker to recognize a word like “vacation” after seeing the word “beach” than after seeing the word “traffic.”

And marketers can use this effect to steer customers’ attention.

For instance, in a 2002 study, Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson looked at how webpage backgrounds and colors could influence consumers looking to buy a car.

When the background was green with pennies on it, customers spent more time looking at the cost information, but when the background was red with flames, they spent more time looking at the safety section.

The decoy effect

This is the phenomenon where companies will include an additional option that is designed to make you choose a more expensive product.

For example, in his TED talk, Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely describes how The Economist offered three subscriptions: an online subscription for $59, a print subscription for $125, and a print-and-online subscription for $125.

Ariely did a study of 100 students where he offered them the three options and asked them which one they would buy. Most students picked the online-print combo, since it seemed like the best deal. But when he removed the print-only subscription, most students opted for the cheapest option.

So next time you’re choosing among several options and one seems like a killer deal, ask yourself why you’re really choosing that one.

When resources are scarce, we’re more likely to desire them. It’s a basic principle of supply-and-demand.

Take airline tickets, for example. Airlines often advertise that there “only three tickets left,” which makes us feel more pressured to act now and buy one.

In 1975, psychologist Stephen Worchel and his colleagues did a classic study where they showed 200 people two identical cookie jars with identical cookies, except one had 10 cookies and the other had just two. People rated the cookies in the empty jar as more valuable, they found.

As Harvard business professor John Quelch writes in the Harvard Business Review, “false scarcity encourages us to buy sooner and perhaps to buy more than normal.”

Apple benefited from the illusion of scarcity in their iPhone sales, as did the publisher of the Harry Potter books, by getting people to pre-order them or stand in line at stores for hours. “In fact, there were very few supply shortages. In both cases, the marketers anticipated demand levels pretty well,” Quelch writes.

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