Fresh Pup

Buyer Psychology and the Effects of Influence

Last Thursday we posted the article “How Do You Convert Readers to Buyers?” and discussed a few options to do just that. At the end of the article, I made a promise to you that we’d dive deeper into the subject of buyer psychology and the behaviors that make people click. One thing about me, you can’t say I don’t keep my promises…

Welcome to the Law of Effect

There’s something about human nature. That buyer psychology and the effects of influence…I don’t know what it is, but it seems like every time we see something that occurs often, we have to call it a law. Like the law of gravity – Newton sees that the apple always falls… it must be a law.

Edward Thorndike saw a common occurrence in human behavior. He summed it up by calling it the Law of Effect. In short, if we do something that brings pleasant consequences, we’re much more likely to do it again. If we do something that brings unpleasant consequences, we’re much less likely to do it again.

As an example near and dear to my heart (another blog forthcoming):

We’ve recently received a few calls from businesses needing optimization. No big deal, nothing new, right? Well, the tone of the calls is different than it used to be. These businesses blindly trusted previous optimization companies, only to find out they were handed a big old tub of snake oil.

By the time they call us, they’re defensive. They’re on guard. They ask a million questions and trust maybe two of the answers. They’ve learned that hiring sleezy “professional SEO experts” brings unpleasant consequences. They’re so against doing it again that they end up being nasty with other prospective firms.

They’re afraid to trust, now. They don’t like the taste of fear, and the anger comes across loud and clear. This is, most assuredly, the Law of Effect.

Reinforcement: Operant and Respondent Behavior

Where Thorndike left off, Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner picked up. He said, “Okay, listen. If the effects of our actions define whether we do them again, then we should be able to change our behavior through positive or negative reinforcement.” He called it operant conditioning, and broke it down into three types:

  • Neutral: responses that don’t affect whether the behavior is repeated
  • Reinforcers: Responses that increase the chance of repetition (either positive or negative)
  • Punishers: Responses that decrease the chance of repetition

The most famous example of respondent conditioning is what’s become known as “Pavlov’s dogs”. In short, a bell would ring and the dogs would begin salivating. The way this came about is by Pavlov inserting a learned response in the animals. Bell rings; food is shown; dogs salivate. Bell rings; food is shown; dogs salivate. Bell rings; dogs salivate, because they learned that the bell signaled food. The action of salivating is involuntary.


There are two major differences between operant and respondent conditioning/behavior:

  • Operant conditioning comes after the action; operant behavior is voluntary.
  • Respondent conditioning comes before or with the action; operant behavior is involuntary.

Keep this information in mind as you read the rest of the article, because I’m going to tie it in with business.

Merging Behavioral Psychology with Buyer Psychology and Business

The Law of Effect, operant conditioning and respondent conditioning are all terms from behavioral psychology. However, they all apply to buyer psychology as well. Our conditioning – through life’s experiences – greatly affects our responses.

As a business owner, you can’t do much about our inherent respondent conditioning. However, you can do a lot with operant conditioning. Here’s a real world (probably) example:

Lucy badly needs a new dress. A man she really likes has asked her out on a date to go dancing, and all she has are the same old stand bys. She gets online and starts browsing her favorite store; she knows from past experience that her local outlet almost always has the online clothes in stock. The staff is friendly and helpful, the clothes are good quality and the pricing is within her budget.

Pause: this is operant conditioning. The first time Lucy went to her (now) favorite store, she received positive reinforcement: friendly staff, quality, pricing. Her action of shopping at said store provided pleasant consequences (Law of Effect). She’s going to go back. Let’s look in on Lucy again…

Lucy is browsing through dresses and she comes across one she really likes. The dress screams at her to wear it. There’s only one problem; it’s red.

Now, Lucy’s mom comes from the really old school, and she’s had it pounded in her head since she was old enough to talk that red was the color streetwalkers wear (Lucy’s seen streetwalkers now, and knows they wear all sorts of colors, but still…). In fact, the one time she tried to put on some cherry red lipstick, her mom yelled at her in front of her friends and made her wash it off.

What does Lucy do? Go all out, say to heck with it, and buy the red dress? Or, does her learned response of shame and reinforced information that red is a “street walker” color wear her down? Does she pass over the red dress?

Pause, while Lucy is biting her lip in uncertainty, stuck between desire for the dress and worry about being perceived as a streetwalker: this is respondent conditioning. Past experience with the color red in apparel and makeup has been negative. At this point, there’s no telling what Lucy will do.

Go beyond indecision

You can’t change her respondent conditioning. You can, however, try to help her past the moment of indecision…

A little box pops up on Lucy’s screen with a friendly message. “Hi, there. My name is Carly. Is there anything I can help you with?” Ah… Lucy is now in familiar territory. The staff has always been friendly and helpful.

“Hi, Carly,” she types. “I’m looking at this dress and I really like it, but I’m not really partial to red. Do you have something similar?” She copies and pastes the link to the dress in the box and chews on her nails waiting for a response.

Carly sends back, “I don’t think we have any of that dress in other colors, but give me just a second.”

Lucy sighs and looks with yearning at the dress. It’s so pretty. “Okay…”

After a few minutes, Carly types, “I’m sorry, we don’t have other colors – but I did find a few similar styles with a variety of colors.”

Carly sends the links to Lucy, who clicks them one at a time. After the third click, she grins. There it is – almost the same style, if not nicer, in a beautiful light blue. She loves light blue. “You found it! Do you have it in this store, by any chance, size 12?”

“We do, but only one – would you like me to put it on hold for you?”

“Yes, please!” Lucy concludes the conversation with a huge smile on her face and warm thoughts about the store. She’s once again reminded why it’s her favorite clothing outlet. She gets on Twitter and gushes her happiness (Thanks @clothingoutlet! Your site’s sales staff is fantastic!). She gets on Facebook and pastes the link to her new dress with a rave review (This is why ClothingOutlet is my favorite store.


Influencing Buyers Doesn’t Have to Be Sneaky

When someone comes to your site and begins to browse your products, many of them are actually looking for something. What they’re looking for is your best guess (or your analytics tracking’s results), but the fact that they’re looking for something is obvious.

Often, and this is true of brick and mortar businesses as well, they leave without buying because of something as simple as indecision. They simply can’t make up their minds. Either their torn by respondent conditioning, operant conditioning or just plain too many choices.

At this moment of indecision, what many need is a nudge. They need a little bit of influence to get to the sale. That influence doesn’t have to be hidden.

Something as simple as a chat box with a live, helpful person at the other end, can make a big difference. As we’ve seen with Lucy, the dear girl, someone to help them through the decision-making process can:

  • Provide positive reinforcement about the company
  • Build a feeling of trust about the company
  • Provide the need to give positive feedback to the company
  • Develop a feeling of self actualization, accomplishment and buyer satisfaction

Not every business can benefit from a chat box. That’s not the real take away, here. The real take away is this.

Your market is made of living, breathing individuals with their own buyer make up. When they come to your site, your online business presence has to be prepared to greet them on their own terms. It has to be prepared to deal with moments of indecision and worries from various respondent conditioning, and then help them walk through the buying process.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it:

Pretend you’re a buyer, visiting your site for the first time. You know nothing about the business, but it’s advertising a product or service you want. Try to find information on that product or service, and then answer these questions:

  • How much information comes up?
  • How many choices does the site provide?
  • Are there places in the search/buy process where potential moments of indecision can be better addressed?
  • How easy has the site made it to contact a live person with questions?
  • How does the site address potential issues such as privacy concerns?

These are important questions to answer.

Buyer psychology is more than just getting into the customer’s head. It’s more than persuading them to buy something they don’t need. In actuality, it’s helping them to find the best answer for their problem.

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6 Responses

  1. This is a elaborate insightful article. Easy to read and understand. The psychology behind buying is simple and complex, It blends elements from psychology, sociology, social anthropology and economics.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Psychology is too much crucial factor of human and everyone has different psychology. To understand anyone’s psychology is not quite easy task, but i think it is easy to understand buyer’s psychology for a seller. A smart seller know very well that how to treat a buyer. And effective illustration with Pavlov and Pavlov’s Dog.

  3. The key difference the rep offered was listening.

    Lucy wanted to buy a dress. The desire was there. The rep showed she cared more about Lucy and her desire than selling.

    We simplified the action needed to stand out this way. We call it “love”. We usually know how to treat a customer. The tools we have today allow us to listen better, and do what’s best for the anxious buyer.

    Listen and love. It’s as simple as that.

    1. Indeed, that’s something I had to learn a long time ago when I worked for a large Telecommunication company. Sales 101… always listen more than you talk. As a matter of fact there was a “game” we all played. Basically after you gave them your sales talk including the price. You shut up & listen. First one to speak looses. Listening is the one thing most people don’t do. Thanks Warren 🙂

  4. Nice illustration on the shopping example. What the online assistant does here is just what trained shoe salespeople used to do. Many salespeople only bring you exactly what you ask for based on what’s on the shelf and nothing else. But a few shoe stores maintain the old style of service and have salespeople bring out multiple pairs of shoes based on the style and color you said you wanted. That way they increase the odds that you actually will purchase a pair because one out of several is more likely to fit than one out of one.
    You don’t need a lot of personal data for that. As in Lucy’s example, the customer service rep doesn’t need to know about all the associations the customer has with the color red. All she has to know is that the customer likes that style of dress but wants it in a different color.

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