Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman[i] says that 95% of our purchase decision making takes place subconsciously (aka System 1).[ii] Despite widespread agreement amongst neuroscientists that our conscious rational mind plays a minor role in decision making, why do our sales messages to buyers focus almost exclusively on facts and figures? Doesn’t all of this data flood customers with too much information, and result in paralysis for analysis? Why do we largely ignore the emotional subconscious, the real star of decision making? If we really want to reduce the number of sales opportunities lost to no decision, shouldn’t we also be directing our sales message to Mr. Intuitive, and not just Mr. Rational?

Why we revert to rational persuasion

We default to selling to Mr. Rational because, when we think of ourselves, we identify with our conscious rational mind. We can’t imagine that serious executives would make decisions based on emotion, because we view our emotional decisions as irrational and irresponsible- a vestigial legacy of our animal past. This distain for emotion is backed by 2,500 years of conditioning, beginning with Plato’s view that man is rational and that it is our emotions that interfere with rational decisions.

But emotional decisions are neither bad nor irrational

Thanks to new research, we now understand that our emotional decisions are not irrational or bad. In fact, our unconscious decisions have logic of their own. They are based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that is capable of processing effortlessly millions of bits of data without getting overwhelmed. Our conscious mind, on the other hand, has a strict bottleneck, because it can only process 3-4 new pieces of information at a time due to the limitation of our working memory.[iii]

But what makes our unconscious so intelligent is that it has spent a lifetime learning from our successes and failures. It has evolved to make decisions for us according to rules of thumb. It works most of the time,[iv] which is why experts believe in “trusting their gut.”

The Iowa Gambling Task study,[v] for example, best highlights how effective the emotional brain is at effortlessly figuring out the probability of success for maximum gain. Subjects were given an imaginary budget, and four decks of cards. They could draw any cards they wanted, and the objective of the game was to win as much money as possible.

The subjects were not aware that the decks were carefully prepared: 1) drawing from two of the decks led to consistent wins, and 2) the other two had high payouts, but carried oversized punishments. The logical choice was to avoid the dangerous deck, and after about 50 cards, people did stop drawing from the risky deck. It wasn’t until the 80th card, however, that people could explain why. Logic is slow.

But the experiment was just getting started. Because the subjects were hooked up with a device that measured the electrical conductance of their skin, the scientists were able to track the subjects’ anxiety. This allowed the scientists to discover that after only drawing 10 cards, the subject’s hand got nervous when it reached for the risky deck. In effect, their emotion of anxiety sensed which deck was dangerous in only 10 cards versus 80 for the logical mind. Intuition is fast.

Although we buy on emotion, we don’t decide on emotion

Recommended for You

Webcast, April 4th: How This Startup of the Year Accelerated User Acquisition Growth 18x in 10 Months

So, it’s our unconscious mental processing that makes decisions, and these decisions are communicated to our conscious mind via an emotion. Reasoning from studies on monkeys,[vi] for example, neuroscientists have been able to see how dopamine levels increase or decrease based on the success or failure of unconsciously anticipating rewards. These positive/negative emotions are then transported to your conscious mind well in advance of a conscious decision. That’s why the risky deck felt emotionally dangerous by the 10th card versus the 80th card for the logical mind.

So where’s the proof that we make emotional decisions?

If it’s true that 95% of our purchase decisions take place unconsciously, then why are we not able to look back through our decision history, and find countless examples of emotional decisions? The answer is that our conscious mind will always make up reasons to justify our unconscious decisions. It does this to maintain the illusion that our conscious mind is in charge. We know this to be true, because neuroscientists have been able to catch the conscious mind red handed in this act of deception. The split brain subjects for this study[vii] were ideal, because they allowed the scientists to trick the brain. The subjects, for example, had the left and right hemisphere of their brains severed in order to prevent future epileptic seizures. Because the left and right side of the brain could no longer communicate, the scientists were able to deliver a message to the right side of the brain to “Go to the water fountain down the hall and get a drink.” After seeing the message, the subject would get up and start to leave the room, and that’s when the scientist would trick the brain and deliver a message to the opposite left side of the brain asking “Where are you going?” Now remember, the left side of the brain never saw the message about the fountain. But did the left brain admit it didn’t know the answer, or say here’s my best guess? No, instead it shamelessly fabricated a rational reason, and said “It’s cold in here. I’m going to get my jacket.”

Sell to Mr. Rational for simple sales, and Mr. Intuitive for complex sales

While the science of decision making remains a relatively young science, and more research needs to be done, there are some guidelines that salespeople can use to help buyers make better decisions. For simple products, it’s better to sell more to Mr. Rational, and for more complex products, it’s better to sell to Mr. Intuitive. This conclusion is backed by a 2011 study[viii] based on subjects selecting the best used car from a selection of four cars. Each car was rated in four different categories. Car 1, for example, was described as getting good mileage, shoddy transmission, etc. Car 2 handled poorly etc. But one car had the best attributes, and choosing the best car was how their decisions were measured. In this “easy” situation with only 4 variables, the conscious decisions were 15% better than the unconscious decisions at selecting the best used car. But for complex decisions with 12 variables, unconscious decisions were 42% better than conscious decisions at selecting the best used car.

How do you sell to Mr. Intuitive?

Admittedly, the evidence for the unconscious advantage in decision making for complex products is far from conclusive; however, it’s now becoming clear that selling exclusively to Mr. Rational for complex products is limited. If you believe this argument has some merit, then you may wonder how to position your complex product to the unconscious mind?

Although people buy on emotion and justify with logic, a customer’s decision to buy is not based on emotion. An emotion is simply the way the unconscious communicates its decision to the conscious mind. So, if you want to influence how a customer feels about your product, instead of appealing to emotions, you must provide the experience that creates the desired emotion.

Experiential Selling: Don’t deliberate– simulate

One of the best ways for a customer to experience your complex product is by sharing a customer story. Studies[ix] have proven that a story activates the region of the brain that processes sights, sounds, tastes, and movement.

Using customer scenarios/stories works for precisely the same reasons that flight simulators are better for pilot training than stacks of instructional cue cards. In fact, the shift in pilot training from deliberate to simulate was one of the reasons why the number of accidents due to poor decision making declined by 71% in the 1990s.[x] Because simulators target the dopamine system that improves itself by studying its errors, this system takes advantage of the way the brain naturally learns from experience.

Thus, a salesperson can share a story with a customer, and due to the transportation effect of story, it feels real. It’s the next best thing to experiencing it live. It’s as if Mr. Intuitive is able to take the salesperson’s product out for a virtual test drive, and discover for themselves the unique value of your product . Contrast this approach to a salesperson delivering a factual data dump to Mr. Rational in the form of an 85-slide power point presentation.

[i] Interview Mahoney & Zaltman, “The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer (And How To Reach It)” Harvard Business Review, Jan 13th, 2003.

[ii] Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” p. 13, 2011.

[iii] Cowan, Nelson “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, (2001).

[iv] Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” p. 109-255, 2011.

[v] Bechara, A., Damásio, A. R., Damásio, H., Anderson, S. W. “Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex,” Cognition, (1994)

[vi] W Schultz, P Apicella, and T Ljungberg, “Responses of monkey dopamine neurons to reward and conditioned stimuli during successive steps of learning a delayed response task” The Journal of Neuroscience, 1 March 1993

[vii] Michael Gazzaniga, “The Split Brain Revisited, Scientific American,” Inc. 1998.

[viii] Mikels, Joseph A.; Maglio, Sam J.; Reed, Andrew E.; Kaplowitz, Lee J., “Should I go with my gut? Investigating the benefits of emotion-focused decision making,” Emotion, Vol 11(4), Aug 2011.

[ix] Gerry Everding, “Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest,” PhysOrg.com, Jan 26, 2009

[x] Susan P. Baker, Yandong Qiang, George W. Rebok, and Guohua Li, “Pilot Error in Air Carrier Mishaps: Longitudinal Trends Among 558 Reports, 1983–2002” Aviat Space Environ Med, Apr 3, 2009.