The Brain Is a Lazy Decision Maker

Tim Riesterer

Do you believe prospective buyers are generally rational? Do you assume that the more information and evidence you pile on them, the better your chances of winning the sale? This must be the case, or why else would there be so many hefty whitepapers with gobs of text, or PowerPoint decks with hundreds of slides, or complicated ROI calculators and spreadsheets out there?

It’s almost as if there’s an unwritten law that says, “Thou shalt overwhelm your customers with content.” But, any such law would be in direct conflict with the Law of Least Effort.

Law of Least Effort
In his popular book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, says, “If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.”

Nowhere is this truer than in decision making and how people make choices. According to Kahneman, people find thinking too hard about a decision to be unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible. He says humans are always seeking “cognitive ease” and, as a result, are prone to place too much faith in their intuitions.

When applied to marketing and sales messaging, these findings mean there’s a good chance your prospects need significantly less information to make a decision than you or they think they do.

System 1 and System 2 decision making
To help you understand what’s actually going on in your prospect’s mind, Kahneman identifies two systems in the brain that impact decision making. To make it simple, he calls them System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is the smallest, simplest part of the brain (we sometimes refer to this as the “old brain”). It operates automatically and quickly with no sense of conscious effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2, on the other hand, is where mental activities requiring effort take place, such as complex computations (we sometimes refer to this as the “new brain”).

We like to think that System 2 is the hero in decision making, and that conscious reasoning drives beliefs and choices. But in reality, Kahneman says it is System 1 where all the action takes place. It quickly creates impressions and feelings, which ultimately become the main source for the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices made by System 2.

System 2 is supposed to take over when decisions get difficult, constructing thoughts in an orderly series of steps to facilitate choices. But, most of the time it does not overrule the impulses and intuitions of System 1. This becomes even more prevalent when System 2 gets busy, strained and stressed like many of your prospects and customers.

In other words, by the Law of Least Effort, the thinking part of the brain is merely a rubber stamp for the conclusions drawn by the emotional part of the brain.

Impact on your messaging
So how does the Law of Least Effort impact your marketing and sales messaging?

Here’s one idea for you to consider. System 1 relies heavily on intuition to make choices. Intuition works by identifying similar past experiences, and then making associations with the current decision on the table.

One great tool for appealing to intuition is using familiar metaphors and analogies — find a way to connect your solution to something already familiar in your prospects’ story. It could be personal or professional, but the key is to associate the decision you want them to make with other, similar decisions they’ve successfully made in the past, or connect it with familiar concepts and experiences.

(Example: I did the above when I used the “rubber stamp” analogy for the way System 1 and System 2 interact on a decision — making a complicated, abstract concept more simple and concrete for you to understand.)

In her book, “Metaphorically Selling,” author Anne Miller describes one of the more famous metaphorical sales pitches.
It took place in 1980 when Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corporation, went to Congress requesting a billion-dollar bailout. The problem was that Congress wasn’t interested in having taxpayers bail out a company. America is built on free enterprise after all, and companies start and fail all the time. This would set a dangerous precedent.

Iacocca attempted to change the perception by substituting the word “safety net” for “bailout,” and pitching the idea that Chrysler’s problems were really America’s problems and Chrysler’s bankruptcy would be very bad for America. Congress connected the decision to other “safety nets” it had approved to protect the American people in the past, and responded with the money he requested.

I’m not saying that one catchy metaphorical phrase changed the entire game, but you see how it can significantly change the perception of your message and potentially the response of the emotional, intuitive decision-maker called System 1.

The best metaphors and analogies get incorporated into stories about how someone else, just like the prospect you are speaking with, was struggling and made the changes you recommend and is now successful. Metaphors wrapped in a customer story will help System 1 quickly self-identify the need for change.

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy and marketing officer at Corporate Visions, Inc.