Psychological Backfiring: What No One Tells You About Neuromarketing

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Grelad Zaltman, a Harvard professor, wanted to find out how much of the purchase decision-making process is done subconsciously. He was surprised to find that nearly all of the buying process is done unconsciously.

The discipline of neuromarketing is relatively young, and studies like Zaltman’s contribute to its development.

As it becomes more and more clear that emotions have a huge influence on consumers, marketers are turning to neuromarketers to get a better understanding of their thinking and behavior.

Today’s marketers are doing more than just surface-level psychology; they are also researching neuroscience, which is a fascinating and complex field.

Neuromarketing is the study of how the human brain responds to marketing stimuli in order to better predict and influence consumer behavior. The term “brand advertising” is not just a catchy term that a salesperson coined. It is a field with fifteen years of recent studies to showcase its potential for marketing efforts.

It is helpful to have a concise understanding of the theory, but it is even better to understand the theory through practice. We will look at some of the most successful examples of neuromarketing.

We will use real-world cases to determine if studying the mind and behavior is useful for marketing purposes.

Neuromarketing is a new way of marketing that uses scientific methods to understand the way consumers’ brains work. This knowledge is then used to create marketing campaigns that are more effective. Neuromarketing is a method used by marketers and advertisers to get into our heads and understand how we think and feel. This method was born in the mid-2000s, but marketers and advertisers have been using it for a long time.

neuromarketing could be useful for your similar endeavors and objectives. This text covers how to get started with neuromarketing, including how to set up your team.

The Psychological Side Of Marketing

In the early 20th century, Western businesses were in a crisis because consumers had nothing left to buy. The middle class had all the necessary resources to live a happy life and was well looked-after. It was then that advertising was invented. Businesses tried to convince people that they needed more things from then on.

Consumers were suddenly being manipulated into a state of need. At first, corporations were happy with traditional marketing practices that focused on television, radio, and print ads. Marketing teams are always looking for ways to improve their sales strategies and reach their target audiences. Although we are aware that businesses collect data about our online activity in order to learn more about our preferences and needs, we don’t like to think about it. But what if marketers wanted our neuronal activity, too?

Since psychology and marketing go together, and convincing a customer is necessary to make a sale, it is important to understand both. There is no better way to appeal to someone than with a Freudian approach. Psychology and marketing have been developing side by side throughout the 20th century. Psychologists mainly focus on understanding and treating mental challenges, while marketers are eager to use this knowledge to sell smarter.

The Difference Between Traditional Marketing Studies And Neuromarketing

Although people can’t be easily persuaded as Vicary had hoped, that doesn’t mean that we’re not influenced by subtle marketing techniques. The average marketing study is generally relatively straightforward. What do you want researchers to ask in the focus group?

You might, at first, go for the apple. An apple is healthy, delicious, and sweetly crisp. The thought of chocolate might make you hesitate instead. Your brain secretly longs for the dopamine high that comes with taking risks.

Why would you prefer a chocolate bar to an apple? Even though you are fully aware that chocolate can lead to cavities and weight gain, an apple is still much healthier for you because it is packed with antioxidants and fiber. If you’re constantly being bombarded with marketing messages, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and make irrational decisions – like choosing the chocolate bar over the apple.

A neuroscientist named Matt Johnson claims that a variety of factors constantly and unconsciously influence the average consumer and even dictate our buying behaviors. We often do not know what we want. Neuroscience helps us understand what is happening in someone’s mind, which is why marketers use it to understand how to sell to people. To explain and understand what motivates us to choose the chocolate bar over the apple, we need to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness.

The Neuroscience Of Marketing

During the 1990’s, the following disciplines were born: neuromarketing, neuroeducation, neurolaw, and neuroeconomics. All of these disciplines are associated with each other. Although the four disciplines studied different areas, they all shared the goal of improving our understanding of human behavior.

Just What Is Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing is a term used to describe the analysis of consumer brain activity. The field of neuroscience is trying to understand why people buy certain products by studying their brain activity. They hope to find out what preferences and inspirations led them to make those choices.

Related studies use advanced equipment, like brain scans, to investigate the brain activity of their subjects. The purpose of measuring the eye movements of these participants is to track their physiology.

Although academic institutions such as the University of California, Los Angeles, have conducted extensive research on the topic, many private organizations seem to have less clear objectives. Even though there are a lot of neuromarketers today who think highly of themselves, many regular neuroscientists laugh at the idea of their scientific methods being used to promote products like Fitbits and PlayStations.

Doing research and studies without the proper credentials is highly unethical. Neuromarketing is important because it helps us understand how human thought and behavior are connected to consumerism.

Neuromarketers are finally gaining the recognition they deserve, thanks to various phenomenal studies conducted in the past five years. More on those cases later! There is a range of things that influence your purchasing decisions beyond advertising, whether you are aware of it or not.

Even though many marketers are aware of the potential benefits of neuroscientific research, they are still unsure if it is worth the time, money, and effort. A business should only dedicate a lot of its resources to a neuromarketing study if its leadership understands the techniques and how they can be applied.

What Is Backfiring and Why Does It Matter?

A psychological backfire is when someone’s attempt to use psychology to achieve a goal unintentionally results in the opposite behavior.

Social proof will psychologically trigger conversions. If you add social proof to your page and conversions decrease, it is because you have either featured the wrong people or because your audience prefers to go against the grain. That’s psychological backfiring. Backfires are like A/B test validity threats.

How does this relate to optimization? But the truth is, most of us know very little about the inner workings of the brain. It’s easy to sound like we know what we’re talking about when we discuss system one and two or color psychology, but in reality, most of us don’t know much about how the brain works. However, that is an idealistic perspective, and there is another side to using psychology for optimization that few people are aware of or willing to talk about. That’s where backfiring comes into play.

Here’s Dr. Brian Cugelman of AlterSpark on the trend of applying psychology to optimization: There is a rift between those who study something academically and those who do it practically. The academics do not test their knowledge to the same degree as people who are not academics. Fields that are considered professional do not have a lot of information available to them.

Cialdini’s work is often rehashed because it is easy to understand and identify. This is due to a handful of principles that are both clear and obvious. Although they are great for sales, they are not successful in other areas. So, the tools are limited in the private sector.

Some people who work in the private sector and market themselves as experts lack a scientific background, but act as if they know everything with an overly optimistic attitude. They act like it’s some amazing cure-all, even though they don’t really know what they’re doing. This can cause problems because they’re not actually facing reality. The impacts of climate change are small and not often effective.

There are different types of backfiring, which can bring a more realistic perspective to those who are using psychology to convert people. This is not some sort of perfect equation that can’t make any mistakes. In fact, a lot can (and does) go wrong. Not knowing (or not wanting to know) that something is dangerous can be dangerous. Optimization using psychology can work, but it is not as effective as promised by overhyped articles. It also may not work in your favor.

You only have part of the story on using psychology to improve your website.

The Intention-Outcome Matrix

All psychological implementations will either be based on the intended outcome, the achieved outcome, both, or neither. There are four results of nudging: two are positive (target behavior and unexpected benefits) and two are negative (dark patterns and backfiring).

We need to take into account the fact that there are two possible outcomes when we optimize something, not just the positive outcomes. We need to be aware of all the potential outcomes that could happen, even if we can’t see them.

Here’s what you need to know about each category…

1. Target Behavior

This is the positive outcome you were hoping for. For example, young adults reduce nicotine dependency.

2. Unexpected Benefits

Any positive outcome that was not intentionally sought. A “happy coincidence” or “positive side-effect”. An example of this would be if young adults were regularly screened for nicotine usage, it would encourage them to go to the gym more often and lead a healthier lifestyle.

3. Backfiring

The treatment may have a variety of negative outcomes, including the target behavior becoming worse, and side effects from the treatment itself. Young adults compete to see who can smoke more cigarettes when they are regularly screened for nicotine.

4. Dark Patterns

An outcome in which the experimenter benefits at the expense of the audience. This is unethical manipulation.

The Likelihood-Severity Matrix

Although backfiring is mostly negative and unintentional, it is more complex than that. In their paper, Dr. Cugelman and Dr. Agnis Stibe of MIT Media Lab state that all backfires can be classified into one of four categories, based on the likelihood and severity of the event.

The research showed that there are six types of backfires that can occur within the quadrants. These include credibility damage, inexperience, fineprint fallacy, personality responses, poor judgment, and social psychology. There are a number of different types of backfires, each with their own unique backfires.

Note that this list is incomplete. This is just the start of research into psychological backfiring. As psychology is used more and more in marketing and other professions, there will be more and more cases of it backfiring. It is important that you are familiar with the original 12 for now.

I. Credibility Damage

1. Self-Discrediting: Low likelihood, major severity. If your message is not believable, or it is based on information that is not trusted, your message will not be successful.

2. Message Hijacking: Low likelihood, major severity. When the meaning of your message is changed by your audience or the general public.

II. Inexperience

3. Superficializing: Low likelihood, minor severity. If you don’t understand the theory behind something, you can’t properly apply it. In other words, applying superficial tactics without reasoning

III. Fineprint Fallacy

4. To overemphasize something is to highlight its benefits while hiding its negatives or side effects. This can be done verbally, by only talking about the good points of something, or physically, by hiding the negatives in the fine print.

IV. Personality Responses

5. If a message does not fit with an audience’s self-identity, that audience is likely to respond by doing the opposite of what the message suggests.

6. Self-licensing is the belief that you can neglect or misbehave in one area of life because you are succeeding or behaving correctly in another.

V. Poor Judgement

7. This is when a message is not tailored to the audience correctly and creates a negative reaction among part (or all) of the audience.

8. When a message is not received by its intended audience, but instead by another segment of the audience.

9. When you fail to correctly analyze your audience’s behavior and cognitive processes, you misdiagnose them.

10. When expected changes don’t occur or result in different changes than anticipated, this is referred to as misanticipating.

VI. Social Psychology

11. When negative behavior is demonized and condemned, it actually increases as a result of the increased awareness.

12. If a negative behavior is displayed, it is more likely to become a social norm and will be repeated more often.

Here’s how you should handle backfires going forward…

  1. Remember the 12 backfires and where they fall within the likelihood-severity matrix.
  2. Audit your site for psychological backfires.
  3. Before launching a test, audit it for the risk of psychological backfires. Do what you can to reduce those risks.
  4. Launch an A/B test, limiting the risk of widespread backfires.
  5. Determine whether the treatment increased conversions or not.
  6. Using qualitative research, look for evidence of backfires.
  7. Record all of the backfires and refer to them before running future tests.
  8. If you still have control of the backfire(s) and it’s causing an overall negative outcome, remove it.


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