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Busting the Myth of the Rational Buyer

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After working on Wall Street for 14 years, I've always presented facts and figures to B2B buyers because that's how I felt serious business people made decisions. This belief was backed by 2,500 years of conditioning.

It started when Plato said that man is rational and that it's our emotions that interfere with rational decisions. But recently, I had an experience that called this belief into question. Shortly thereafter, I was presented with a compelling study from neuroscience that also refuted this belief. So when these two events collided, the myth that buying decisions were strictly rational was busted. I now understood why customers get stuck in analysis paralysis, and what I could do to help then to avoid it.

My experience began when I was about to make the most important buying decision of my life. My daughter, Isabelle, was leaving her small community school, and she was off to grade seven in the city. I had to make sure I made the right decision, so that she'd be on the right track to get into a good university. So, I created a selection matrix on Excel, and off I went to the school's open houses to make the optimal choice.

The problem was that all the schools seemed the same. I felt nothing. I was stuck in analysis paralysis.

When a good friend, Professor Pete, asked me how it was going, I said, "I can't decide. I've seen seven of the top private schools, and not one has inspired me." Pete suggested I check out Voice, a small performing arts school in the distillery district not far from my home. Although I didn't see how an arts school could help get my daughter into a good university, I agreed to go because I respected Pete's opinion.

The next week, Pete asked me how it went.

"Terrible," I said. "Within five minutes of visiting the school, Issy and I both decided on Voice because it felt right."

"Sounds great," said Pete. "But why is that terrible?"

"It's terrible because the school failed on every one of my crieria. The teaching was average, sports facilities were poor. And yet we chose it because it felt right. Does that make me a bad parent?"

"No, Michael," Pete said. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Most of our decisions are made unconsciously."

Your Rational Mind Can Fabricate Reasons for Your Decision

Because Pete is a professor of neuroscience, he cited a study as proof. In the study, subjects were given a puzzle to solve, and by monitoring their brain activity with an EEG, the scientists were able to show that the puzzle was actually solved eight seconds before the subjects were conscious of solving it.

"So, Michael," Pete said. "At the open house, I'm sure your unconscious mind was processing all the time in the background, and when it decided, it communicated its decision to your conscious mind through the emotion of certainty that Voice was the right choice."

"Come on, Pete," I said. "I'm not going to believe that I bet my daughter's future on a gut feeling. Sorry, but after reflecting on my decision, I realized that I chose Voice because Issy would gain self-confidence from participating in the performing arts."

"Really," Pete said. "You decided all that in just five minutes of visiting the school? Or did your rational mind fabricate a reason, so that you';d have a consistent narrative to consciously justify your subconscious decision."

"Wow, Pete," I said. "That's a little too cerebral for me. In layman's terms, do you mean it';s like you and your wife? She makes most of the decisions, and you pretend that you're in charge?"

"Yes," Pete said. "Exactly, and there is a fascinating study to back it up. The subjects, who had just had their right and left hemisphere of their brain severed in order to treat epilepsy, were well-chosen because they provided the opportunity for the researchers to trick the brain. Because the left hemisphere processes language, the right hemisphere was mute, so it could no longer articulate what it saw to others, or even itself. The only way that the right hemisphere could communicate what it subconsciously saw was by pointing.

"So when the subjects' right hemisphere was shown a picture of a snowy winter scene, they were asked to point to one of five cards that represented what they had just seen, and the right hemisphere correctly pointed to a shovel. But when asked to verbally explain their choice, the right hemisphere couldn't do it, so the left hemisphere had to step in. The problem was that the left hemisphere didn't know the reason why because it hadn't seen the snowy picture. But did it admit that it didn't know the answer or say here's my best guess? No, instead it fabricated a rational reason, and shamelessly said, 'Oh, that's easy. The shovel was chosen to clean out the chicken shed.'

"The answer isn't as bizarre as it initially appears because the left hemisphere was previously shown a picture of a chicken foot. So, the left hemisphere connected the shovel to a chicken foot, and then fabricated the reason that the shovel was chosen was to clean out the chicken shed. So, Michael," said Pete. "This study may explain why the reason you think you chose Voice was really nothing more than your rational mind trying to consciously justify your unconscious decision."

"Aha, I get it," I said.

And suddenly, everything started to make sense to me. Intuitively, I'd always known that people often make decisions emotionally then justify them with logic. But I didn';t have the proof to back up this theory. Now, I understood why.

The reason I couldn't look back on a decision and see it as exclusively unconscious was because the rational mind would always fill in the gap with a fabricated reason.

Using What I Learned to Sell to B2B Customers

Now that the myth of the rational buyer was busted, I would forever change how I sold to B2B customers.

For example, a couple of weeks later, I was talking to a friend of mine, John, who was tasked with selling Buffalo, NY, as a business location to a group of call center businessmen in Stamford, CT. And after sharing what I learned from selecting my daughter's school, we concluded that John's presentation was too abstract to emotionally engage his audience.

So instead of flooding them with data, we showed them a before and after insight scenario of what it could look like if they moved their call center to Buffalo.

  1. On the first slide, we showed a picture of a house they could buy for $250,000 in Buffalo vs. Stamford.
  2. On the second slide, we showed a list of worker qualifications they could hire for $15/hour in Buffalo vs. Stamford.
  3. On the third slide, we showed how many square feet they could rent in a prime downtown location in Buffalo vs. Stamford.

Our objective was to create a feeling of desire in the businessmen at the prospect of relocating to Buffalo. Once they'd emotionally bought into the idea, John had more than enough information to help them rationally justify their decision.

What I've learned is that if you just present abstract facts to the rational Mr. Spock, your customer will get stuck in analysis paralysis like I did when choosing my daughter's school. To bring knowledge to a boil so that someone acts, you've also got to present what the facts mean to the intuitive Captain Kirk. To act, people have to not only think it's right, but it also has to feel right, and that only happens when they internalize the idea.

How? By painting a clear before and after picture of owning your idea, your customer is then able to imagine themselves in your insight scenario. So, don't just present the facts and hope the customer figures it out. Instead, let them take your idea out for a virtual test drive.

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Michael Harris is CXO of Insight Demand, a sales-training company that helps sellers take the shortest path to more revenue—through the power of storytelling. He is also author of Insight Selling.

LinkedIn: Michael Harris

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  • by James @ Wishpond Wed Dec 18, 2013 via blog

    Michael. Great article. I had a similar experience when researching for a series of articles on the psychology of advertising. I was reading about a case study from 2003 in which a Harvard student worked with a South African bank, sending 50,000 letters offering short term loans. For many of the letters they varied the interest rate as well as included psychologically-influential cues. It turned out that having a wholesome, happy female picture in a corner of the letter had as much positive impact on the response rate as dropping the interest rate by four percentage points.

    People, completely unconsciously, react that positively to the picture of a smiling woman.

    I found similar studies about how we respond to color, other images, and certain words - how they have unconscious impacts on the decisions we make and actions we take.

    And no, I'm not sure I'm completely okay with it all. So I can completely commiserate with your initial response. Am I going to use it in my marketing endeavors? Absolutely. Am I okay with it? I'm not sure yet.


  • by Michael Harris Thu Dec 19, 2013 via blog

    @James, that's a great study. Do you have the source? I'd like to use it. I normally use how charities that send out donation letters that pull two times the donations when the letter is about one person vs. using facts and figure about many. But it was the self evident truth that really hit me. Trying to persuade with fact and figures is hard rock mining. And I stayed in the mine way to long, because I didn't think emotion belonged in business.

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