The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Improve Your Marketing Efforts (Part 1 of 7 - Principles)

Updated: June 03, 2011

Triggers and Behavioral Patterns

After studying the behavior of animals for several decades, ethologists have determined that most species are subject to "fixed action patterns," which are automatic responses to certain "trigger features" in their environment.

For example, when a male animal defends its territory in the presence of another male of the same species, the rival male as a whole doesn't trigger the territorial defense behavior. Instead, the trigger often is just one very small aspect of the intruder. In the case of male robins, the trigger is red breast feathers. Experiments have shown that male robins will attack a clump of red breast feathers but will not attack a perfect, stuffed replica of a male robin without red breast feathers.

You might be asking at this point what all of this has to do with the psychology of persuasion as it pertains to your marketing efforts. Just bear with me, because it turns out that humans also have certain fixed behavioral patterns in response to virtually transparent trigger features in their environment.

In other words, we engage in blindly mechanical patterns of behavior in response to things of which we have little or no awareness. Let's dig a bit deeper and find out what the universal human triggers are!

Behavioral Shortcuts

It's not any big surprise that human beings are wired like other animals in the animal kingdom. Automatic, stereotyped behavior is very common in the world of human action. What's important to the study of influence and persuasion is understanding why we respond so automatically and mechanically to certain things.

Our world has become increasingly more complicated, and we are forced to respond to an environment that involves an overwhelming number of stimuli. We need shortcuts to cope with all of this complexity.

Instead of analyzing all aspects of things we encounter everyday, we use "rules of thumb" to organize matters according to a few key features and respond rather mindlessly when one or more of these key features is present.

Stereotyped behavior is not necessarily a terrible thing, especially when it is the most efficient form of behaving in a given situation. We don't always have the time, energy, or capacity to respond in any other way. As environmental stimuli saturate our lives more and more, we are likely to rely more heavily on these behavioral shortcuts.

Our automatic responses to certain triggers in our environment often save us lots of time and get us the results we want. But sometimes things backfire and our mindless choices create headaches and cause additional problems.

Invisible Forces

Let's consider the experience of a tire company that mailed coupons (involving a printing error) that offered no savings to customers. The error was eventually corrected and new coupons were mailed. What's interesting is that the coupons that offered absolutely no savings produced as much customer response as did the coupons that offered substantial savings.

We have learned to behave mechanically on the assumption that discount coupons will not only save us money but will also save us the time and mental energy needed to save that money. The tire company's coupon (whether or not it offered actual savings) functioned as a trigger feature eliciting an automatic behavior pattern that is based on this prevalent assumption.

Although we are relying more frequently on automatic behavior patterns to get us through our stress-filled days, most people know very little about these patterns. And what's more, we take action without any awareness of how some individuals and organizations are using their knowledge of "human triggers" to influence our decisions and choices.

Unlike animals who instinctively respond to certain situations, we develop automatic responses to psychological principles that we have been taught to accept. We rarely perceive the power of these principles because they are so pervasive and we are subjected to them early in life. These basic principles essentially operate as invisible forces of influence in the course of human interaction.

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