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Using Predictable Irrationality To Drive The Purchase Process

Whether someone is buying a car or a pack of pens, that decision is sealed in the last 30 seconds of the thought. There is no process that can optimize that moment. So how do you close the deal?

buying process


By Ellen Woods

Whether you buy into the philosophy or not, Dan Airely’s coined term “Predictably Irrational”, is a great descriptor of human behavior in its native form.

During several points in history, and most notably the middle of the last century, there was a huge emphasis on behavioral sciences. During that time psychiatry was making great strides, and being a little bit crazy was sort of a badge of the times. The focus on behaviors, as it relates to marketing, hadn’t yet been realized; but there were a lot of psychiatrists making serious cash off of the “predictably irrational” behaviors of people with insurance.

Behavioral postulates, sometimes known as biological imperatives, are at the center of many theories and propose three types of needs that are recognized drivers for behaviors, the so called primal triad, which consists of survival, protection of resources, and reproduction.

In the late nineties, the idea was enhanced through research at Ohio State,, which identified 15 subsets that were believed to be critical to triad behaviors:

  • Curiosity – desire to learn
  • Food – desire to eat
  • Honor – (morality) desire to behave in accordance with code of conduct
  • Rejection – fear of social rejection
  • Sex – desire for sexual behavior and fantasies
  • Physical exercise – desire for physical activity
  • Order – desired amount of organization in daily life
  • Independence – desire to make own decisions
  • Vengeance – desire to retaliate when offended
  • Social Contact – desire to be in the company of others
  • Family – desire to spend time with own family
  • Social Prestige – desire for prestige and positive attention
  • Aversive Sensations – aversion to pain and anxiety
  • Citizenship – desire for public service and social justice
  • Power – desire to influence people

Whether primal factors and their subsets have a pre-determined order of priority within an individual, or whether they are drawn on in direct reference to experience or exposure is a question that remains up for debate. Assuming that they exist to some degree in every individual, it’s easy to see why irrationality presents at some level in all individuals and why it is likely that multiple drivers are in play at any given time.

When an individual feels stress either in the short term or long term, there is likely an exacerbation of focus on the triad (survival, protection, reproduction) that takes precedence. Therefore the ability to identify “predictable” behaviors does exist, but only if you understand the context and the individual’s ability to manage, what for them, are stressful situations.

Up until the 1980s, marketing was based on to a large extent on persuasive factors rather than predictive, and the actual consumer to product linkage was done mostly locally by store employees who knew their customers and their moods.  There’s probably a whole other article that could be written on the impact of stress to predictable behavior, let alone how persuasion impacts people under stress. Actually, there might have been a movie about that you many seen a time or two; “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Even with all the technology that exists today and all the levels of communication, the basic motivators haven’t changed.  There’s no doubt that online shopping has made for more purposeful shoppers who research their decisions and rely more on peer reviews. There’s no doubt that spontaneous purchase decision are on the decline and that people visit malls less and for shorter periods of time. Our best friends may live on the other side of the world now, but they are instantly accessible for recommendations via mobile technology and their opinion counts more than random recommendations.  Digital assistance is great during decision research, but it doesn’t count much at the point of sale.

Predictable Irrationality is still the wild card.

No matter how much screening or profiling you do, the moment of purchase is what matters. Even if you assist in the store or digitally and they cart an item, they still haven’t bought it until they check-out.  How high is cart abandonment?

Whether someone is buying a car or a pack of pens, that decision is sealed in the last 30 seconds of the thought. There is no process that can optimize that moment. So how do you close the deal?

A sales pathway has many break-off points, not just one. Whether a customer uses an app, a website or comes in through the front door, they have many things going on and they have a purpose for being there.  Sometimes it’s a pre-shop and sometimes they have come to buy. If they aren’t searching or comparing, the process should expedite the route to the check-out, otherwise a suggestion is handy. Ask them if they want to look at items that are most often purchased, on sale, close-out or endorsed by Martha Stewart, etc. it’s a handy way to figure out their persuasive type.  If they want to compare saws and washing machines, let them do it. It makes sense in their world. Let the optimal experience be defined by the customer, not a one size fits all sales funnel.

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One response to “Using Predictable Irrationality To Drive The Purchase Process

  1. Ellen, I love the “pre-shop or buy” and would suggest that this is also 911 or 411 thinking to any path of satisfaction (maybe not ultimate satisfaction).

    joe underwood
    Area Code Shopper
    Titan Fence, Inc.
    Woof Woof Roofs

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