In the current issue of Business 2.0 (not yet online), Andy Raskin writes about interesting consumer behavior studies done by Stanford Professor Baba Shiv.
The research found that if you can keep someones cognitive side of the brain busy while they are making a “buying decision,” they are much more likely to use their emotional impulses to make that buying decision. One of the tests used to demonstrate this fact involved two groups of people who were told that they would participate in a memory study. One group was asked to memorize a seven digit number while the other was asked to memorize a two digit number. Just before they were prompted to recall the numbers, they were presented with either a scrumptious piece of chocolate cake or a fruit salad. The group that had been asked to memorize a seven digit number was 50% more likely to choose the chocolate cake rather than the fruit salad. What happened was that the cognitive side of the brain – that part that can decide that “cake is bad for you” – was busy, leaving the more primitive side of the brain – where emotions like desire and fear reside – to make the decision.
Related research by the same Professor Shiv found that reminding people of their own mortality had the same effect.
The bottom line is that people do not behave like the rational subjects looking to fulfil their basic “needs” which economists use in their models.