Are you being subliminally manipulated while shopping?
Scientists studying behavioral economics have discovered many secrets about how people make financial decisions, and businesses and salespeople use this research to devise ways to influence you. Most of these methods affect you subliminally, or “below the threshold of consciousness,” meaning you’re not even aware that you’re being manipulated.
The result? These subliminal sales tricks make you spend more money than you’d like. Here are three of the most common tricks — plus, how to defend yourself against them.
As humans, we’re hardwired to avoid extremes. In a classic experiment on extremeness aversion, two groups of consumers were offered microwave ovens. The first group had a choice between an Emerson microwave oven for $109.99 and a Panasonic for $179.99. The second group had those to choose from plus one more; a different Panasonic model priced at $199.99.
While, some shoppers bought the most expensive model, the sales of the middle choice were most interesting. In the first group, only 43% of shoppers bought the microwave that cost $179.99 — but in the second group, 60% did. Simply adding another higher-priced option caused more people to purchase the next-most-expensive model.
There was no rational reason why more people in the second group than the first should have preferred the $179.99 microwave over the one that cost $109.99 — except for the subliminal influence of the most expensive option. Rather than choosing the priciest or cheapest microwave shoppers opted for the middle one.
How to defend yourself: Being aware of the effect is a good start. As you look at couches or towels (or whatever you want to buy), keep in mind that the selection offered might be influencing how you’re thinking.
Start by carefully looking at the cheapest choice, and only move on to the next-most-expensive one if the first does not meet your needs. Another way to overcome this effect is to bring a friend, show her the two or three cheapest options, and ask her to choose the one she thinks is best. Or, if possible, have your friend choose from all the possible options without seeing the prices. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!).
Weber’s law came from the observation that a stimulus is noticeable as a constant ratio of the original stimulus. Here’s an example to better explain it.
If you pick up two objects, you’re able to tell that an 11-ounce one is heavier than a 10-ounce one, even though the difference is only an ounce. But you won’t notice this tiny difference on really heavy things — it comes down to the ratio between the two weights. If you noticed a 10% difference in the first test, then if you lift a twenty-pound object, you would need another object to weigh at least twenty-two pounds to notice the difference in weight.
Weber’s law applies to the psychology of spending habits as well. If you see a toaster you like for $30 and you know it costs $20 in another store, you might leave and drive a few miles to save $10. But you might buy a couch for $475 even if you know another store is selling it for $465. In relation to $475, that $10 savings isn’t as meaningful — at least according to your unconscious mind.
Salespeople use this effect when you’re buying large items that come with extra options. You might have paid only $200 for a car stereo in your old vehicle, but when you buy a new car for $20,000, a $500 stereo doesn’t seem like much — it’s only 2.5% of the purchase price, after all! Salespeople know this subliminal trick, so as soon as you make the decision to buy a large item, they start suggesting all sorts of expensive extras.
How to defend yourself: Be aware of the effect and do a more rational analysis. What would you normally pay for those extras if you weren’t making a large purchase? Is driving a few miles worth saving $5 or $20? Once you’ve made a decision, stick to it — whether you’re buying a $20 item or something that costs $500 or more.
According to research, our fear of suffering future regrets causes us to make irrational economic decisions.
In one experiment, people would not give up their lottery tickets for new ones, even if offered a bonus. Logically, one ticket has the same chance of winning as another, so if a scientist or economist wants to trade tickets with you and give you an extra dollar as a bonus, you should jump on the offer. But you imagine (consciously or not) how you’ll feel if the ticket you trade away is the winner.
A good salesperson knows how to use your regret aversion for his own benefit. A timeshare seller might say something like, “Prices are rising, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this opportunity.” Or a furniture salesman might mention — just to be helpful — that the sale price will end soon. It’s a fantastic deal, one that might not be available ever again… but is that true?
How to defend yourself: Most deals are available again, and this isn’t the lottery. What’s the worst that could happen if you take time to think about your decision? Maybe you pay a little more, or wait a month for another sale. Rather than succumbing to the pressure, aim to buy once you have enough information.
You can also use your regret aversion to protect yourself. Think about how you’ll feel if you buy a product now and something better comes along next month. Will you still be happy with this purchase, or will you regret your decision?
Not everyone is purposefully trying to subconsciously influence you. In fact, research shows that a smile can influence behavior without people’s awareness, making this a subliminal persuasion technique which most of us use naturally and innocently. But whether subliminal sales methods are used intentionally or not, being aware of these psychological effects — and making your purchase decisions rationally — can save you a lot of money.
Your Turn: Do you feel like businesses or salespeople sometimes manipulate you into making costly mistakes?