What makes people do what they do?

They’re inscrutable. Insufferable. Illogical. And unpredictable. What makes people do what they do, react the way they do, buy the things they buy, or make the decisions they make?

It’s maddening. Just ask anybody in marketing or fundraising, and you’ll hear war stories of counterintuitive results and just plain weird reactions on the part of the people we try to persuade.

Luckily, there’s hope. As psychologists and cognitive scientists delve deeper into human behavior, we’re learning more. And much of this research is on the web — one example is the site by psychologist Susan Weinstein. It’s an ongoing list of “100 things you should know about people,” with each entry revealing a priceless plum about human behavior.

One such insight is this — anecdotes persuade more than data. Despite everything that common sense might tell you, when it comes to whether people base their decisions on emotion or reason, it’s not even close. Decision-making is almost entirely emotion based. That’s why stories sell. They evoke empathy, which triggers emotional reactions, which motivate people to act. In fact, in most selling situations — and especially in fundraising — rational arguments will discourage response. Emotion sells because emotion is what informs people’s decisions, regardless of how much they may protest otherwise.

Here’s another example. Groups are swayed by a dominant personality. Whenever people gather in a group, there’s a subtle jockeying for position that takes place until an unspoken org chart emerges. People subconsciously elect someone to be the leader of the group. And often that leadership role is granted to the person who speaks first.

Think about the groups you’ve participated in — from your kid’s cub scout meetings, to strategy sessions, to serving on a jury. Isn’t it true that there’s always someone who takes the lead and influences others? And often, that someone isn’t the official, designated leader. Think about what that means for focus groups. Just one dominate personality can skew the results, often canceling the validity of the research and wasting thousands of dollars and countless hours of time.

And yet another example. The more difficult something is to attain, the more people want it. This is all about exclusivity and scarcity. The nightclub that keeps people waiting to get in, the wildly expensive new restaurant, the hazing that college students go through to get into a fraternity, and on and on. Instead of turning people off, exclusivity and scarcity motivate us all the more. Until …

Sometimes, the nightclub doesn’t seem to be all that exciting once you’re inside, or the fraternity not all that cool. Now here’s the interesting part. When that happens, instead of admitting they were wrong, most people fall back on their original assessment and convince themselves that the group or activity really is worthwhile after all. They reinforce their original decision.

So, does that mean making products and services appear more exclusive or scarce will entice customers to want them more and cause them to persuade themselves that they’re good even if the actual performance is less than stellar? Trying to cloak a brand in exclusivity it doesn’t merit would probably be a risky strategy if you know the product is poor. But it does seem that people will overlook faults if a brand has cache. Jaguar remains a status brand despite a dismal record of service and reliability. And not so long ago, Harley Davidson motorcycles were almost falling apart on the road because quality had sunk so low, and their customers got the company logo tattooed on their arms.

The website is www.whatmakesthemclick.net . Well worth a look.

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