How People Make Buying Decisions
February 28, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

Young child holding a lot of money

In business, we like to believe our decisions are based on reason. From hiring to layoffs to supplier relationships and major purchases, we make choices based on which option moves us closer to our goal. Emotions aren’t involved. Or are they?

In 1999, Antonio Damasio and a team of neuroscience researchers showed how tightly emotions are involved in even the most straightforward decisions. The researchers engaged groups of participants in card-drawing games. The player could win or lose on every card drawn from one of four decks. Two of the decks were stacked to provide negative results, and two were stacked to provide positive results. The decks that provided negative results sometimes had big winners, but over the course of the game, the only way to win was to draw consistently from the positive decks.

In Damasio’s study, the players included people with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of their brains (the area that governs the emotions resulting from reward and punishment) as well as people without that damage. The experiment showed that the people with undamaged brains (i.e., those with a full complement of emotions) gravitated to the correct strategy of drawing from the positive card decks. Those with impaired emotions never learned to avoid drawing from the negative decks.

There was money to be made in winning the game, so participants were driven by real consequences. Interestingly, in a followup study, Damasio devised a game in which negative emotions hurt rather than helped a player’s chances of winning. In that case, the people with impaired emotions (who have trouble experiencing negative feelings) made the best decisions. We are used to thinking of emotions as being distractions from our reasoning, but the evidence is mounting that emotions actually drive that reasoning.

We’ve all had decisions go wrong as a result of temptation, anger, or fear. The emotions involved in decision making tend to operate at a much deeper level. They are often so deep we aren’t even aware of them. They come in two types: immediate and anticipated. The immediate emotions are the satisfactions we get from interim success and the twinges we get from interim losses. They apparently guide us through the process of decision making. The anticipated emotions are the fear of major loss and the joy of victory we can imagine we will have when the process is over. They help us plan our approach to a decision.

If you have all the information, you should use reason to choose the best option. But when do you have all the information? Almost never. You might say that is why we even have emotions to begin with. Over countless generations they have evolved to help us make choices in the absence of complete information.

At Communispond, we have always taught that selling is not a purely intellectual process. It’s not just a matter of offering the best deal. It’s also a matter of guiding the customer to draw from the card deck with the positive outcomes. That’s why probing and active listening are so important. You want to offer the best deal, but you also want to know what drives the customer. Is it the prospect of winning, or is it avoiding the prospect of losing? Listen for the emotion, then link it to your selling proposition.