I’ve been re-reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
As I mentioned in my year-end reading list roundup, it’s an extraordinary book, and unlike anything else I’ve read.
Broadly speaking, it links behavioural economics with the psychology of decision-making…
It’s a fascinating study of rationality that reveals a lot about why we make the choices we do.
The book gave me a whole bunch of insights into human psychology.
I’d recommend it to anyone in business or marketing wanting a better understanding of why people make the decisions they do.
(If you ever wondered why some schmuck didn’t take you up on your irresistible-seeming offer, you’ll get a lot out of it ; ) )
Written by a Nobel laureate, it’s no airport novel. I’m not ashamed to admit I had to re-read many pages two or three times over before I fully grasped some of the concepts…
But it was well worth the effort.
I’ve been meaning to write about some of what T,F&S taught me from a marketing perspective for a little while.
So here’s the first in a series of select insights from Kahneman’s book, and how they can help us in our marketing.
This one’s all about:
The Mood Heuristics may sound like a long-forgotten San Fran jam-band from the Summer of Love – but they’re not (I checked).
So, what are they?
Mental shortcuts, basically.
Mood heuristics are when we focus on one aspect of a complex problem and ignore others, in order to make a decision.
We all use ’em, hundreds of times a day – they’re an essential part of how our brains work.
Imagine how much more difficult, demanding and time-consuming your day would be if you didn’t have access to these mental shortcuts…
They help you make frequent, often important choices: answering questions, choosing what to eat or what to wear, and (hey there, marketer!) assessing the value of a product.
Without them, you’d barely get beyond breakfast.
So as much as we’d all like to believe we actually use foolproof, thorough decision-making processes, that just isn’t the reality.
In fact, we run through some of these strategies so quickly we’re not even aware we’re using them.
Because our minds are so complex, we’ve formed these shortcuts as a more efficient way of thinking, so we don’t have to use every scrap of information available to us when making a decision – something that would take hours rather than moments.
Fairly obvious so far, you may be thinking.
But here’s where it gets interesting…
Turns out, we constantly make substitutions in our minds to help us process more complex ideas.
And we intuitively deal with more difficult problems by simply answering easier problems instead.
Kahneman talks a lot about these substitutions in his book – about how we often replace an answer to a particular question with an answer to a similar but not identical question when it’s faster or easier to do so.
It’s not laziness, it’s a fundamental process.
Check out how it’s illustrated in Thinking, Fast and Slow…
The German dating study
As part of a survey of German students, participants were asked two questions:
1 – “How happy are you these days?”
2 – “How many dates did you have last month?”
Pretty unremarkable questions, right?
At first, there appeared to be no apparent connection between the questions and the answers given.
As Kahneman explains:
The experimenters were interested in the correlation between the two answers. Would the students who reported many dates say that they were happier than those with fewer dates? Surprisingly, no: the correlation between the answers was about zero.
Evidently, dating was not what came first to the students’ minds when they were asked to assess their happiness. Another group of students saw the same two questions, but in reverse order.”
That last point is key:
The questions were reversed for the second group.
So their Q’s were posed this way:
1 – “How many dates did you have last month?”
2 – “How happy are you these days?”
As you’re reading them, you can probably see what a subtle difference the order of the questions makes already…
Back to Kahneman for the results:
The results this time were completely different.
In this sequence, the correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness was about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get.”
Meaning this time, the students’ answers to the first question had a significant influence on the answers to the second one.
So what happened?
Kahneman explains that because the first group weren’t primed to think of their romantic lives before assessing their current happiness, they didn’t give much consideration to it.
Whereas the second group had an emotional reaction after being asked about their romantic life (whether good or bad!)…
And many students answered the second question based on how the first question made them feel right there and then.
Hmm… so the answer to one question may depend on the answer to a previous question? Interesting…
Here’s the author again on the mood heuristics at play in the study:
‘Happiness these days’ is not a natural or easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking.
However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy they are with their love life.
They substituted the question to which they had a ready-made answer for the question they were asked.”
The experiment was repeated with other topics – students’ relationships with their parents, finances etc…
…and the same pattern of substitution was found.
As Kahneman explains:
Any emotionally significant question that alters a person’s mood will have the same effect…
The present state of mind looms very large when people evaluate their happiness.”
Think about that for a second.
Our present state of mind is what matters most when we answer questions of this kind.
From a copywriting perspective, that means when your prospect reads your sales copy, they’re influenced not just by what your message is telling them…
…but also by how they feel when reading it.
Mood heuristics affect how people respond to your message
How you ask questions in your marketing – and in what order – has an important effect on your reader’s mood heuristics.
What if you could ask a series of questions that build up to influencing the most important question of all: the yes/no of the call to action.
I’m sure you’re used to asking questions of your readers in your copy anyway…
Conversational writing is effective because it creates more of a connection with your reader.
(And yes, that’s true even with B2B – those businesses are run by people, aren’t they?)
So asking simple Qs like “Wouldn’t you…?”, “Have you seen..?” and chatty rhetorical Qs like “Makes sense, right?” get your reader nodding along in agreement – like they would in face-to-face conversation.
And when you ask the right questions in the optimal order, you have more influence over the inevitable substitutions and associations your prospect makes when they read your copy.
Wait a second…
…does that mean this mood heuristic stuff is about ‘subliminal messaging’, and shady ‘NLP’ hacks?
Nope. Those ideas don’t work in modern marketing anyway.
It’s simply another way to create a smoother, more focused path towards the decision every copywriter asks their reader to make at one point:
To buy (or not).
Could asking questions that tap into emotions and mood heuristics be misappropriated by more manipulative marketers?
But isn’t that the case with almost everything in marketing?
Like a lot of persuasion tactics, the onus is on the people doing the selling to do the right thing – to remain honest with their audience at all times.
Duping someone into a sale isn’t a strategy that works long-term – and since you’re a Rock & Roll Copy reader, you’re all about the long-term, right?
Awesome ; )
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows how we each make hundreds of small decisions each day…
How our minds seek out available shortcuts and substitutions to prevent us from collapsing into exhausted, brain-fried wrecks.
By focusing on the questions that join the dots for your reader, you can help them make the right decision faster…
And their brain can get on with tackling the next big choice (such as: the blue tie, or the blue with white stripes? AAARGH!)
Effective sales copy has to activate your reader’s emotions…
It’s why so much successful marketing relies on storytelling narrative and emotional language.
Of course, the most persuasive messages combine an emotional argument with more rational, fact-based evidence (resulting in copywriting gold when done right!)
Mood-influencing questions are a way of introducing a little extra engagement into your copy…
They help strengthen the connection between your message and your reader’s brainbox – essential when there’s always a whole bunch of exciting distractions just a click away.
So the next time you’re writing a sales message, remember those German students and how the questions they were asked affected the way they saw things in that moment.
Your prospects are relying on mental shortcuts to make decisions – isn’t it time your marketing got in on the act too?