Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 237
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Goal Priming Works!

New research in customer psychology reveals ways to be more persuasive.

Let's do an experiment. First, read this story of Sally and Ted.

One day Sally wasn't feeling well, so she left early from work. It was her first job out of college, and she and Ted were finally making lots of money with few responsibilities. On her way home, Sally picked up a pregnancy test. She was several days late. At the end of the day when Ted got home, he noticed that she'd arrived before him, and he wondered if she was all right. When he came in, Sally asked him to sit down. She had something to tell him.

Imagine for a moment that you are Sally, if youre female, or Ted, if youre male. Read through the pairs of phrases below and mark those that seem most important to you.

A) Driving a car that costs more than my friends' cars or B) Feeling accepted

A) Being my own boss or B) Not making mistakes that hurt others

A) Winning or B) Being a team member

A) Feeling independent or B) Feeling reliable

A) Enjoying myself or B) Knowing others can depend upon me

A) Advanced college degrees or B) Feeling steady, solid

A) Promotions at work or B) Supporting others

Notice whether youve checked more As or Bs, and keep reading.

One of the most difficult problems in business is getting other people to seriously consider your sales message. Consider, for example, the problem of a business owner. Your business offers a product or service which helps many people, but too many people refuse to seriously consider it. They hang up on your sales reps, fail to return calls, and toss your promotional literature in the trash. If more people would seriously consider how your product or service could meet their needs, then you'd have a lot more customers.

Jennifer Aaker, from Stanford University, recently completed a series of experiments exploring goal priming, and her findings provide an answer to this problem. Youve already had some experience with goal priming. Goal priming is what I did to you by asking you to imagine yourself in the story of Sally and Ted and then asking you to record your choices in the exercise above.

Ms. Aaker believes that people pursue two kinds of goals in their day-to-day lives. The first seeks pleasure. The second avoids pain. The first involves enjoyment. The second involves security. All people have both goals, she says, but they also tend to hold only one of them in their minds at a time. When people recognize a sales message that is consistent with a goal that is in their minds at that moment, then it seems important to them, and they examine it more closely.

When you read the story of Sally and Ted, your attention was drawn to the second goal, avoiding pain and providing security. You were primed for messages that are consistent with this goal because of the new responsibility thrust upon you by a first pregnancy. You can prove this by noticing which category holds the most checks, As or Bs. If it is the Bs, then you were primed to listen to messages consistent with avoiding pain and providing security. Products presented to you using this language will get your attention.

Professor Aaker discovered two rules which must be followed for goal priming to work. First, the message must be consistent with the goal you have primed. For example, if you're selling cars and notice a young mother looking at large sedans, you would logically prime for avoiding pain and say "These seat belts are quite easy for children to use and will protect them in an accident." But if you try to elaborate on the virtues of the car by describing how much fun it is to drive, you've confused the goal you primed.

Second, when people examine a message closely, it's important that they find a strong statement with your best, most persuasive arguments, a message that proves your product satisfies the needs you have primed. Be cautious. Professor Aaker found that when she used a weak message for a need she had primed, her subjects developed negative attitudes toward the product.

Finally, Aaker found that if you make a mistake and prime the wrong goal, security, for example, when a person is actually aware of seeking enjoyment, it doesn't matter. The primed goal will overcome the actual goal a person is feeling. But the best outcome will come when you prime a goal that is already on a person's mind.

Professor Aaker was amazed how easy it was to prime goals. A question or a comment will do it. But we should also be aware how easy it is to ruin goal priming by failing to follow the rules she discovered. It may be time to check your promotional literature and look for inconsistencies.

Reference: Aaker, Jennifer and Angela Lee (2001) "I" Seek Pleasures and "We" Avoid Pains: The Role of Self-Regulatory Goals in Information Processing and Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (June 2001), 33-48.

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