How does your audience decide what it wants to click, share, favorite, and purchase?

Understanding a bit of behavioral psychology can go a long ways toward a better understanding of your audience and why they do the things they do on social media and on your website.

There’s tons here for marketers to discover, and the psychology of human interaction can lead to some quick wins in the way you compose your social media updates and communicate online. I’ve collected 15 of my favorite psychological studies and how they might relate to what we all do online. I’d love for you to take a look and let me know what you think!

psychology studies

15 Psychological Studies for Marketers to Know

1. The Endowment Effect

When we own something, we tend to value it more highly. If we have to sell it, we want more than it is really worth.

The research: A study at Duke University found that students who had won basketball tickets valued the tickets at $2,400. Those who had not won tickets would pay $170. Similarly, a study by Daniel Kahneman of Cal-Berkeley found the same effect with study participants and the price of mugs. Value doubled for those owning a mug (perceived worth $10) compared to those looking to purchase (willing to pay $5).

Marketing takeaway:

Your customers attribute a higher value to things they already own. Help increase their ownership in your product or brand by encouraging feedback and suggestions (UserVoice is a great option) or asking for involvement on social media (chats or open office hours).

2. Reciprocity

We feel obliged to give back to people who have given to us.

The research: In 2002, a team of researchers of found that waiters could increase tips with a tiny bit of reciprocity. Tips went up 3 percent when diners were given an after-dinner mint. Tips went up 20 percent if, while delivering the mint, the server paused, looked the customers in the eye, and then gave them a second mint while telling them the mint was specifically for them.

Another fun example: BYU sociologist Phillip Kunz sent Christmas cards to 600 completely random strangers. He received 200 Christmas cards back in response.

Marketing takeaway:

Give something of value to get something in return. In our case at Buffer, we’ve found that acting on the lessons from How to Win Friends and Influence People, at the heart of which is kindness to others, we’ve received many happy returns in terms of opportunities and affinity from others.

3. Consistency Principle

We like to keep consistent what we think, say and do, and will change to ensure this is so.

The research: Princeton researchers asked people if they would volunteer to help with the American Cancer Society. Of those who received a cold call, 4 percent agreed. A second group was called a few days prior and asked if they would hypothetically volunteer for the American Cancer Society. When the actual request came later, 31 percent agreed.

Marketing takeaway:

Help current customers and potential users create an expectation of what they may say or do. For instance, get users to opt-in to a marketing course and offer tools at the end that are used by expert marketers. Subscribers may wish to stay consistent with their stated goal of improving their marketing, and signing up for recommended tools will fall right in line with this expectation.

4. The Foot-in-the-Door Method

When asked to make a small commitment first, we are more likely to agree to a larger request later.

The research: The first study on the foot-in-the-door method was performed in the 1960s by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Faser. Researchers phone a number of homemakers to inquire about the household products they use. Three days later, the researchers called again, this time asking to send a group of workers to the house to manually note the cleaning products in the home. The women who responded to the first phone interview were two times more likely to respond to the second request.

Marketing takeaway:

Ross Simmonds of has a great take on what this means for marketers: “The more frequently a customer opens your emails, downloads your content or goes along with your request, the more likely they are to comply with a larger request like sharing your content & inviting their friends.”

5. Framing Effect

We react to a situation differently depending on whether we perceive the situation to be a loss or a gain.

The research: Researchers Amos Tverksy and Daniel Kahneman polled two different groups of participants on which of two treatments they would choose for people infected with a deadly disease.

  • Treatment A: “200 people will be saved.”
  • Treatment B: “a one-third probability of saving all 600 lives, and a two-thirds probability of saving no one.”

The majority of participants picked Treatment A because of the clear and simple gain in saving lives.

In Group 2, participants were told the following:

  • Treatment A: “400 people will die.”
  • Treatment B: “a one-third probability that no one will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.”

The majority of participants picked Treatment B because of the clear negative effect of Treatment A.

Marketing takeaway:

The words you use and the way you frame your content has a direct impact on how your readers will react. Whenever possible, frame things in a positive light so that readers can see a clear gain.

6. Loss Aversion

We feel the negative effects of loss more strongly than we feel the positive effects of an equal gain.

The research: Chicago Heights teachers received bonus payments as part of a loss aversion research study. One group of teachers stood to receive bonuses based on the performance of their students on standardized testing. Another group received their bonus at the beginning of the year and stood to either keep it or lose it based on the results of their students’ tests. Per the results of the study, the prepaid bonuses—the ones that could have been lost—had a bigger impact on teachers.

loss aversion

Marketing takeaway:

Discover your customer’s challenges and reservations, and alleviate their concerns up front. Risk-free trials and money-back guarantees are one way to deal with loss aversion. Remove the fear of loss from the equation.

7. Conformity and Social Influence

We change how we behave to be more like others.

The research: Would you give a wrong answer if you knew it was wrong, just because everyone else was giving it? Solomon Asch found this to be true for a large percentage of people in a study he performed in the 1950s. He hired a group of actors to participate along with students in answering quiz questions. The actors were told to give the wrong answer. The majority of students followed suit, even though the correct answer was obvious.

Marketing takeaway: 

Key influencers and industry leaders can help your product appear more valuable to others. Invite-only networks get the boost of this effect, too.

8. Acquiescence Effect

We give answers based not just on a rational consideration of what is being asked but also in consideration of how we will appear to others.

The psychology website Changing Minds explains three scenarios when we are most likely to acquiesce to the request of others:

  1. They seem to be a superior in some way.
  2. They have a need whereby we can easily help them.
  3. Answering the question fully seems like hard work.

Leading questions are one way that the acquiescence effect impacts the answers that one gives.

Marketing takeaway: 

Be aware of the leading questions you may be asking in customer development calls, surveys, or questionnaires. People can be easily swayed to answer in a certain way if the question seems tilted in a certain direction.

9. Mere Exposure Theory

The more we’re exposed to something, the more we like it.

The research: Robert Zajonc showed Chinese characters to non-Chinese-speaking participants. He showed each character 1 to 25 times, asking participants to guess the meaning of the characters. The more often a participant saw a character, the more positive meaning they gave.

This theory has a quick effect, too. Researchers Kunst and Williams showed their study participants a picture of an octagon for only one millisecond. Later on, though the participants could not explicitly remember seeing an octagon, they showed an increased affinity for the shape.

Marketing takeaway:

Don’t be afraid to repeat your message. This can work well for social media sharing, as reposting helpful content can have a direct impact on your audience.

10. Informational Social Influence

When we do not know how to behave, we copy other people.

Alex Lasky of Opower ran an experiment to see which type of messaging would best encourage others to save energy:

  1. You can save $54 this month
  2. You can save the planet
  3. You can be a good citizen
  4. Your neighbors are doing better than you

The first three led to no increase in energy saving. The fourth message worked, leading to a 2 percent reduction in household energy usage.

Marketing takeaway:

Use the experience of others to help people see the benefits of your product or company. There’s a close tie here with social proof.

11. The Decoy Effect

Consumers tend to change their preference between two options when a third, less attractive option is presented.

An old subscription page at the Economist stated:

  • Web Subscription – $59
  • Print Subscription – $125
  • Web and Print Subscription – $125

Seems like a super deal for web and print, right? Professor Dan Ariely tested this model with students at MIT, asking them to choose a subscription option among the three choices listed by the Economist. The results:

  • Web Subscription – $59 (16 students)
  • Print Subscription – $125 (0 students)
  • Web and Print Subscription – $125 (84 students)
    Total revenue: $11,444

When the print subscription was removed, the results looked like this:

  • Web Subscription – $59 (68 students)
  • Web and Print Subscription – $125 (32 students)
    Total revenue: $8,012

That’s a 30 percent difference in sales for the Economist by using a decoy price of a print subscription.

Apple’s pricing method also seems to take advantage of the decoy effect. In the below example, the 32GB option is made to look more appealing in comparison to the other two models.

decoy effect

Marketing takeaway:

You can put the decoy effect to good use with your pricing strategy as well as any time you are comparing different options. The inclusion of an option that is “asymmetrically dominated” (a plan that seems out of whack or a feature list that doesn’t quite add up) will make the other options more appealing.

12. Availability Heuristic

When evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision, we favor options that bring to mind immediate examples.

On a Quora thread about psychology facts, Alex Suchman offers a clear example of the availability heuristic in action. How many times do you think that a seven-letter word with an “n” as the sixth letter would appear in this post? How many times do you think a word ending in “ing” would appear?

Most people, when answering quickly, will say that “ing” words are more common than the other when in fact, seven letter words with “n” as the sixth letter would include all “ing” words as well. Since our mind struggles to come up with easy examples for the first question, we then perceive the second question to be more likely.

Marketing takeaway:

Make your product or service easy to grasp by providing examples of the actions you want users to take.

13. Buffer Effect of Social Support

People who feel supported by others feel less stress. If you know your friends will support you and there is someone with whom you can talk things through, somehow stressful situations are more tolerable.

The research: In a study of pregnant women, researchers found that 91 percent of those with high stress and low social support suffered complications whereas only 33 percent of pregnant women with high stress and high social support suffered complications.

Marketing takeaway: 

Be consistent with availability and support for your customers. Constant support—in the form of email communication, blogging, in-app messages etc.—may help others feel more comfortable and less stressed.

14. Ben Franklin Effect

When we do a person a favor, we like them more.

The research: Jim Jecker and David Landy tested the theory by inviting participants to take part in a test in which they could win money. The test was administered in a rigorous way by an actor playing the role of scientist.

At the end of the study, 1/3 of participants were asked by the scientist if they would be willing to return the money to him. Another 1/3 were asked by the secretary of the study if they’d return the money. A third group was not asked to return the money. All participants then filled out a questionnaire, including a spot for how much they liked the scientist. Of the three groups of participants, the group who gave him the money gave him the most likable scores.

Marketing takeaway:

We like to justify our actions—in the case of the Ben Franklin effect, we feel a need to believe we did a favor because we liked the person. Don’t be afraid to ask for favors from your customers, users, and audience. If they’re willing to help out—answering surveys, checkout out content, resharing—their opinion of you will likely go up.

15. Propinquity Effect

The more we meet and interact with people, the more likely we are to become friends with them.

The research: Tenants in a small two-floor apartment had closer friendships with their immediate neighbors. Least likely friendships were between those on separate floors. And tenants who lived near staircases and mailboxes had friendships on both floors.

Marketing takeaway:

Be a constant present on social media and in the inbox of your subscribers.

Further reading

These 15 psychological studies for marketers are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a huge number of additional theories and effects that could help improve your online marketing. For more, I’d recommend checking out the following websites and articles.

Which psychological studies piqued your interest? Are you aware of any of these in the marketing you’re doing currently?

I’d love to hear how psychology impacts your marketing. Please do share in the comments!

Image sources: The Noun Project, Blurgrounds, Franklin Templeton, Quora, Death to the Stock Photo

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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • OMG Kevan!! This one is a gold mine!!!

    I love you and I hate you at the same time!

    Love you because you brought so many interesting studies and researches to my attention and hate you because now I will have to spend tons of my time to get myself familiarised with all that! bummer!!

    • Ha, thanks so much Tim! Hope you find the time to sort out some of these for your marketing! Let me know if you find any favorites. 🙂

  • awesome tips!

  • Interesting read. It’s intriguing to know what influences people and how simple things can effect a customer relationship.

    I like reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books as they have some really interesting psychological studies like these that can really impact a business.

    • Great tip, Emma! Do you have a favorite Gladwell book? I quite enjoyed Outliers. 🙂

      • That’s great. The Tipping Point is really interesting also.

  • I’d love to hear some examples from readers here of how they have successfully knowingly or unknowingly used some of these psychological “tricks”.

    We’re still quietly working away to launch a private beta soon, but I have some ideas for some of these.

    RECIPROCITY: Until/unless it just isn’t financially feasible, I’d love to send small gifts/cards to customers. Perhaps upon their first purchase, a little before renewal/upsell time, holidays etc. Of course the goal is to drive additional revenue and reduce churn – but also to just make our relationship a little more human.

    FOOT-IN-THE-DOOR: I haven’t given this much thought and I’m not sure I’ve seen it in practice, but for a subscription based pricing model, perhaps pricing goes as follow: free trial > let them know full price of their plan > Discount price for a short time period > Full price. Might make the jump from trial to full price easier to stomach.

    FRAMING EFFECT: If you have quantified your value proposition by speaking with users, you might be able to say something like, “$50 to save over 40 hours a month in tedious manual data entry”.

    MERE EXPOSURE THEORY: We can take a page out of Seth Godin’s book on this one. He sends out little bite sized articles nearly everyday it seems. I like them, and opening those emails is just part of my routine now.

    BEN FRANKLIN EFFECT: I’m a big believer in this one. This combined with the “Foot-in-the-door” effect can be powerful. By asking your customers/prospective customers to do a little more for you each time, you increase your chances of them completing your request… plus they will like you more for it!

    PROPINQUITY EFFECT: Jason Lemkin (founder of Echosign) has written that he never lost a customer that he made a point of visiting in person. Something to consider, especially if your deal size is large enough to make this feasible.

    Great post Kevan!

    Thanks 🙂

    • Great examples, Blitzen! I’m willing to bet if you were to write examples of each “trick”, it’d be a viral-worthy blog post.

      • dianne9836

        upto I looked at the bank draft of $5625 , I accept that my sister woz actualie making money in there spare time from their laptop. . there great aunt has done this 4 less than seventeen months and a short time ago paid for the loans on their villa and bought a brand new Car . go to this website……..>> -> WORLD WIDE ONLINE EARNINGS!!! <-

    • Those all look great! Wow! So many cool ideas here. I agree that this could make a pretty stellar blogpost if you’d ever want to put something together with your results. 🙂

  • Craig Brew

    A valuable resource to Marketers and Sales People alike. Awesome post Kevan.

    • Thanks so much, Craig!

  • Great psychology tips to use not just in business, but in our everyday lives. Awesome research and writeup, Kevan! btw, have you read Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”?

    • Hi Kevin! Thanks for the comment. You know, I’ve seen so much Cialdini out there that it feels like I’ve read the book, but I don’t think I ever have actually read it! Seems like a good one to add to the book list. 🙂

  • kellymason

    This is super interesting, but I think you could add to #11. Prices don’t necessarily need to be asymmetrical to encourage people to buy; offering 3 options with the intent of selling mostly the middle item is a strategy for many brands (check out the appliance section next time you’re perusing Target). It’s kind of like the Goldilocks effect–people don’t want the “bad” item, don’t need the “best” item, and feel good about picking the one that is “just right.” Thanks for the article!!

    • That’s a super great point, Kelly! Makes a lot of sense! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Kelly,
      We recommended this strategy when I was a manufacturer’s rep. Instead of displaying 2 levels of an item, do three, with the mid level the old top priced item, and the highest priced item far above the middle unit. This is highly effective.
      For example, a car stereo retailer originally displayed 2 speaker systems, one at $249, and the other at $379, By adding a third system at $749, sales of the $379 system rose significantly, and as an added bonus, the dealer also sold more than a few $749 systems as well.
      By offering a much high priced alternative, consumers who did not feel comfortable purchasing the highest priced item would buy the $379 system, and some who wanted to purchase the best purchased the $749 system, resulting in far higher sales and profits for the retailer.

  • “The more frequently a customer opens your emails, downloads your content or goes along with your request, the more likely they are to comply with a larger request like sharing your content & inviting their friends.”

    This is huge – building a community that is truly engaged will do more for your social media presence than you could ever do on your own.

    Treat your members like rockstars and they will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

    • Awesome! Thanks for the thoughts here, Kevin!

  • Petrica

    Perfect! Encapsulates how marketing is the ideal mix between creativity and science. Also recommend Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit – why we do what we do and how to change ‘ – it illustrates how Febreze used customer feedback through focus groups to understand how to improve their offer- once they understood their customer’s behaviour and motivations, and fed it into their marketing, sales rocketed!

    • Duhigg’s book sounds like a great one to pick up! Thanks, Petrica!

  • Jessica Hill

    I think about the Primacy and Regency Effect when writing bullet lists and planning touch points –

    • Those sound like great ones, Jessica! Thanks for the tips!

  • Kevin Anderson

    Great post! For an overview of more than 200 Online Persuasion Techniques, check out:

  • sosaysi26

    I like the premise of the article, but I feel like some of the Marketing takeaways are not very fleshed out. For example, the endowment effect seems very interesting, but I don’t really see the connection between people valuing things they own more and saying you should get customer feedback. Getting customer feedback is a given, and the fact that I would sell something for more than you would buy it for doesn’t seem related.

    • Myles Hocking

      I would video interview some of your product/service users and pose the question “what would you do today if I took this product/service away from you?” that’s when you’ll see a bigger valuation come through in their answer. Or even offer them a monetary/cash value for it in return and video their refusal. It’ll seem a little absurd, but you’d be ‘capturing the lightening’ by filming it.

      • Great one! I think we’ve used a variation of that question when we’re looking into product/market fit!

  • Hi Kevan, Another great piece. I’m not only going to take a look at my behavior in working with clients but also will be using some of these principles in my pre-coaching presentations. I especially love the brevity you employed while keeping the explanations thorough enough to get a handle on the concept. Thanks! Ali.

  • MalikaBourne

    Psychology-understand why people do what they do certianly does play a huge role in being noticed or no no one knows we exist with something to offer. Thantk for spelling it out. Yes, I’m sharing your great article with others! TY!

  • Some very cool ideas here! We have always thought that Psychology and Marketing go hand in hand!

  • These are fantastic! I really like the Ben Franklin effect, and try to take advantage of it by asking users to help with blogs by answering some simple questions. I’ve also heard of a psychological marketing tactic that shows how to maximize people spend. The experiment gave people the option of a chocolate kiss or a chocolate truffle. In some set-ups the kiss was free, in others it was the same price and in others it was quite a bit cheaper than the truffle. When there was a free option, most people took that instead of buying. I don’t remember the specifics of the study, but I find that one quite interesting as well.

    Thanks for sharing all of these. I look forward to checking out

    • Great one! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Shanda Henley

    These are great strategic moves, Kevan. I definitely agree that framing is essential in driving communication forward! Thanks for the post.

  • That was a fascinating post to read because I was going through all the techniques going tick do that and tick do that. Never knew the names or the psychological principals behind it but just found over the years that it worked, so who knew academic research and real life aligns 🙂 Have to say that it is a great list and the decoy effect was a new one on me and in many way. I have always been transparent on that sort of thing, just doesn’t “feel” right to be that subversive with your psychological plays, but I guess it is a personal thing. I think that if only everyone subscribed to this the world would be a much better place! I meet so few that do and interestingly in my professional life and role these approached mirror wonderfully into success on LinkedIn too. Best wishes and keep up the good work. James – The Linked In Man

    • Hi there James! Thanks for the comment! So great to hear that these techniques were already in your repertoire! 🙂

  • charles000

    I’m not a marketing entity. Oddly enough, maybe, I’ve never fallen for any of this, I’m basically immune to virtually all of the tactics suggested here . . . which is perhaps why I’m not into marketing. But it is fascinating to make note of how these simple ploys appear to be effective among apparently so many? Really???

    • Indeed, Charles! Yep, the psychology of some of these marketing tips is really fascinating to me, too!

  • Adrian Stokes

    Extremely interesting, providing they are used in an ethical and professional way, not seeking to deceive the public. I personally dislike the marketing done by supermarkets, which appears to deliberately mislead consumers into buying products which are not as good value as the offer sitting right next to them on the shelf. That’s one step away from deception and fraud in my book. Marketeers, please take note.

  • Trick

    Is my math somehow wonky? The mortality question is skewed by the wording completely. It’s more that mathematically the concepts presented are very different. It’s not that they are two different ways of saying the same thing. So it’s not an adequate example of “how you say something has an effect on perception” :

    Group 1: “The majority of participants picked Treatment A because of the clear and simple gain in saving lives.”

    Treatment A: “200 people will be saved.” = 100% chance of 200 lives saved

    Treatment B: “a one-third probability of saving all 600 lives, and a two-thirds probability of saving no one.” = 30% chance of complete survival rate and a 60% chance of complete fatality… either “everyone lives” or “everyone dies”

    —when you mess with the probabilities then of course it will skew the response.

    In Group 2: “The majority of participants picked Treatment B because of the clear negative effect of Treatment A.”

    Treatment A: “400 people will die.” = 100% chance of 400 deaths

    Treatment B: “a one-third probability that no one will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.” = 33% chance for complete survival rate and 66.6666~ chance 600 people will die.

    For a more effective study the wording should have compared G1 A to G2 A and G1 B to G2 B, as they represent the same mathematical concepts with slightly altered wording.

  • H. Rodabaugh

    These were fascinating.

  • Kevin – As a social worker, I’m very familiar with the concept of ‘framing’ – we call it ‘positive reframing’, used when delivering negative news.

  • Sergey Yatsenko

    There’s tons here for marketers to discover, and the psychology of human interaction can lead to some quick wins in the way you compose your social media updates and communicate online. – */S.Y Real Influence is Level of The Changing Mindset.

  • Love this, particularly as it reinforces what I’ve been telling people for years — put down the social media 101 books and pick up books on psychology, behavioural theory, etc. Far more useful insights to be had that will inform fresh strategies.

    However, I do want to pick a bone with #6 on Loss Aversion. The takeaway is suggested to be to remove the fear of loss through a guarantee or no-risk trial. But the point of loss aversion is the fear of loss drives superior performance or motivates action more than the opportunity of gain. Remove

    instead, maybe the takeaway should be about framing calls to action or marketing messages as preventing a loss and not highlighting a gain? After all, isn’t that how the entire insurance industry works – and works extremely well?

  • This is a great article. I studied Psychology at university, and when I graduated, I almost fell into Marketing and for a while felt like I had wasted my degree – but then I seemed to be pretty good at it all… Articles like this make you understand why. Can anyone recommend any books or ebooks that focus purely on the Psychology of Marketing? – and go into some good depth?

  • Absolutely incredible,unusual tips you can use right away. I love the idea of offering third least attractive option to make a sale and always give a question you want them to agree to as a 2nd – thanks a lot!

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  • Great tips. I’m interested to try #10 about social influence (e.g. “Your neighbors are doing better than you”), but I’m concerned that this type of message my come across negatively. Do you have any advice on how to word things in such a way that doesn’t turn people off?

  • Abrar Shahriar

    Superb idea about Marketing psychology. I think Marketing ideas molting time to time and people are more changing then ever. Old content but still evergreen ideas. Get some new marketing psychology ideas of 2016.