6 Psychology Studies with Marketing Implications

In university, I chose to major in psychology because, the way I saw it, psychology is relevant to pretty much every career path.

Psychology is the study of human behavior, and there are very few jobs in the world that don’t have to do with human behavior. Unless your job is to count every grain of sand on a desert island, you’re always going to be dealing with people.

In no field is the overlap between psychological theories and real-world applications more apparent than marketing. The aim of marketing is to influence human behavior, and you can’t begin to do that if you don’t understand how humans behave.

Here are six landmark experiments that reveal key insights about human behavior and the psychology of marketing.


1. Regan’s Reciprocity Experiment


Reciprocity – the idea that if I give something to you, you feel obligated to give something back to me – is a fundamental part of human nature. Noted paleontologist Richard Leaky said that the urge is so deeply rooted, it’s the essence of what it means to be human. And social psychologist Robert Cialdini identified it as one of his 6 key principles of influence.


In 1971, Professor Dennis Regan at Cornell University demonstrated the power of the reciprocity principle in what was ostensibly an “art appreciation experiment.” In the experiment, subjects were asked to rate paintings with a partner, who was in reality a research assistant.

Halfway through the exercise, the research assistant would leave the room and return a little while later. For some subjects, he would bring back a soft drink. For other subjects, he would return empty-handed.

At the end of the exercise, the assistant asked the subjects whether they would be willing to do him a favour by purchasing raffle tickets from him. As expected, the subjects who had received the gift of a soda were far more likely to purchase tickets, even though the tickets were far more expensive than the soda had been.

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

If you provide something of value to your customers or your website visitors, they will be far more likely to provide you with their business in return.

This concept is at the heart of inbound marketing. I offer you valuable content, and you feel obliged to return the favour in some way.

Reciprocity is also relevant for link-building and relationship-building. If I link to your website, you’ll feel more inclined to link to my website in return. If I re-tweet you, you’ll feel more inclined to re-tweet me.

In short, effective marketing is all about exchange. If you give a little, you’ll get a little.


2. Freedman and Fraser’s Compliance Experiment


People generally like to remain true to their word. Years of psychological research show that if you first make a small commitment to someone, and then that person then asks you to make a larger commitment, you will be more likely to comply with their request.

A common explanation for this phenomenon has to do with cognitive dissonance. Once you make a commitment to an organization, person, or cause, that commitment becomes a part of your self-image. If you are then asked to further demonstrate your commitment, you will be hesitant to renege because doing so would conflict with your new self-image and create a dissonant mental state.

This time-tested truth is commonly known as the foot-in-the-door technique, and is another of Cialdini’s six principles of influence.


One of the first studies to demonstrate the foot-in-the-door technique was conducted in 1966 by Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser.

The researchers contacted California housewives by telephone and asked them if they would answer some questions about the household products they used. Three days later, they called again and asked if they could send a team of men over to go through their house for two hours to manually take account of all the cleaning products.

Freedman and Fraser found that the women were more than twice as likely to agree to this larger request than a control group that had not initially agreed to the smaller request.

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

Don’t try to sell your potential customers on your product right away; get them to commit to a smaller request first, like filling out a contact form, and then progressively ask for more.

Nurturing a lead is a lot like nurturing a relationship. You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on a first date. First you get them to commit to seeing you again, then after a while to meeting your friends or your parents. Slowly, you ask for greater and greater commitment until (maybe) the time comes to ask for a lifelong commitment.

Guiding leads through your sales funnel follows the same process. First you get them to commit to giving you their contact information, then you ask them to subscribe to your blog or to follow you on social media. Eventually, these progressively larger commitments can lead to a sale.

The important thing is not to go for the gold right away. Get your foot in the door first, and work your way in from there.


3. Kahneman’s Framing Experiment


A key insight to emerge from cognitive psychology over the past few decades is that the human brain relies on basic rules of thumb, or cognitive biases, to process information and make snap decisions. Daniel Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky are credited with discovering the existence of many of these cognitive biases through a series of seminal experiments in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of these cognitive biases is known as the Framing effect. The Framing effect means that people will give different responses to the same problem depending on how it is framed or worded.

In a key experiment, Tverksy and Kahneman split participants into two groups and asked them to choose between two treatments for 600 people infected with a deadly disease.

In Group 1, participants were told that with Treatment A, “200 people will be saved.” With Treatment B, there was “a one-third probability of saving all 600 lives, and a two-thirds probability of saving no one.”

Presented with this option, which treatment plan would you choose? Most participants opted for Treatment A – the sure thing.

In Group 2, on the other hand, participants were told that with Treatment A, “400 people will die.” And with Treatment B, there was “a one-third probability that no one will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.”

In this group, the results were reversed. Most participants opted for Treatment B.

Framing Effect

Note that Treatment A and Treatment B are exactly the same in both groups – all that changed was the wording. When the treatments were presented in terms of lives saved (positive framing), the participants opted for the secure program (A). When the treatments were presented in terms of expected deaths (negative framing), they chose the gamble (B).

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

Context is everything. How you frame the information you present on your website or in your ads will change the way people react to it.

Obviously, you want to emphasize the positive effects of your product over the drawbacks (like cost). But more than that – consider the tone of the language you use on your website. If it’s very business-like, you’ll put your users in a business frame of mind, and they’ll act accordingly. If it’s more personal, they’ll be put in a casual frame of mind, and they’ll act in a different manner.

The type of framing you choose will depend on your goals and on what you are aiming to achieve.

With your online advertising, consider varying the tone and the frame of your ads and conducting A/B testing to see which is more effective. A very slight change in language can have a huge impact on the decision process.


4. Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler’s Loss Aversion Experiment


Another cognitive bias related to the Framing effect is known as loss aversion: people feel the negative effects of a loss more powerfully than the positive effects of an equivalent gain.

Loss Aversion

If you won $1,000 tomorrow, you’d probably be pretty happy. But your level of happiness would be less intense than your level of unhappiness if you instead lost $1,000 tomorrow.

Loss aversion applies even for small-value goods. In a 1990 study, Daniel Kahneman, with colleagues Jack L. Knetsch and Richard H. Thaler, randomly assigned participants to either a “buyer” or “seller” group. The sellers were each given a mug and the buyers were given nothing.

In subsequent trades, the researchers found that the sellers required significantly more money to part with the mugs (around $7) than the buyers were willing to pay to acquire them (around $3).

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

No matter how good your product is, your customers’ fear of throwing away their money on it is always going to outweigh their desire to gain it.

There are several things you can do to help alleviate your customers’ aversion to parting with their money. For example, you can offer a risk-free trial period or a rebate.

For e-commerce, consider how you frame your transactions. Loss aversion implies that customers would rather avoid a $5 surcharge than get a $5 discount.

Also, be careful when initially setting the price of your product. Price increases are far more likely to influence a customer’s decision to switch than price decreases.


5. Zajonc’s Mere Exposure Study


“Any publicity is good publicity.” The idea behind this oft-quoted statement is that having people talk about you, regardless of what they’re saying, beats having no one talk about you at all. And indeed, a number of psychological experiments have demonstrated that simply exposing people to something – a name, a person, a product, a song – increases their positive feelings toward it.

Mere Exposure Effect
Robert Zajonc demonstrated the power of mere exposure in a famous experiment in 1968. He split subjects into two groups and showed them a series of meaningless Chinese characters. He then told the subjects that some of these symbols represented positive adjectives, and others represented negative adjectives.

The individuals consistently rated the symbols they had previously seen more positively than the symbols they had not seen. Moreover, after the experiment, the group that had been repeatedly exposed to certain characters reported being in a better mood than the control group.

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

You can increase the power of your brand simply by exposing people to it.

Thomas Smith wrote a famous guide in 1885 called Successful Advertising that is still often quoted today:

“The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.
The second time, they don’t notice it.
The third time, they are aware that it is there.
The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.
The fifth time, they actually read the ad.
The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.
The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.
The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.
The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.
The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.
The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.
The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.
The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.
The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.
The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.”

Advertising is one way to expose people to your brand, but it is by no means the only way. Blogging, social media, email marketing, podcasting – these are all great ways of getting your name out there.

The more presence you have, the more people will come to think positively of your company, and the more business you will get.


6. Asch’s Conformity Experiment


How much time do you spend thinking about what other people think of you? Be honest – it’s probably a lot.

Humans are a social species. There’s safety in numbers, which explains why we have such a tendency to try to fit in. Psychologists refer to this tendency as conformity, and it’s been demonstrated time and again in cultures all around the world.

In a famous 1951 experiment, Solomon Asch showed that group pressure can override even the most obvious of facts. He had college students participate in a “perceptual” task along with a group of other students, who were in reality actors hired by Asch who knew the true aim of the experiment.

The participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines on it, labeled A, B, or C. They were then asked to say aloud which of the three lines was the same length as the first line that had been shown.

Below is a sample of one of the cards the participants were shown.

Which line matches the length of the first line? Clearly, Line A. But what if everyone else in the group said the answer was Line B? Would you stick with the evidence of your senses, or go along with the crowd?

Asch conducted several of these trials in which all the actors in the group were instructed to unanimously give the wrong answer. He found that a large percentage of the “real” participants followed the majority in these instances. Only when one of the confederates acted as a “dissenter” who gave the right answer did the power of the majority influence decrease.

So what does this experiment tell us about marketing?

If social influence can cause people to ignore even the most obvious truths, you can bet it has an effect on how people evaluate your business.

The more social proof you can attach to your website and to your brand, the more new customers you will attract. This social proof can take the form of customer testimonials, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, or blog commenters. If people see that others are liking and interacting with your brand, they will be inclined to hop on the bandwagon.

It’s no coincidence that social signals now play a huge role in SEO. Google and other search engines recognize the value users place on the opinions and actions of other users.

If you want to attract new business, start by building up a community of followers on your blog and your social media profiles. Once you get the ball rolling, more people will start to hop on board and soon you’ll have a dedicated and growing base of brand advocates.


There’s no magic formula that will turn somebody who wants nothing to do with your business into a devoted fan, but these six experiments reveal fundamental truths about human nature that you can leverage to your advantage.

Once you understand how your customers behave and what their basic needs, fears, and biases are, you can start tailoring your marketing efforts around them.

And of course, remember that the goal is never to manipulate your customers, but to use your knowledge of psychology to create a positive and meaningful experience for both you and them.

Do you know of any other key psychological principles or studies that I overlooked? Let me know in the comments!