Neuroscience Proves: We Buy On Emotion and Justify with Logic — But with a Twist

By Michael Harris


The expression that “People buy on emotion and justify with logic” has always made intuitively sense to me, but rationally it seemed like BS.

After doing research for my HBR article “When to Sell with Facts and Figures, and When to Appeal to Emotions,” I now have a better understand why this expression created mixed feelings for me. I discovered, for example, that people do not decide emotionally. The decision to buy is made subconsciously, and these subconscious decisions are based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that follows a logic of its own.

Our subconscious/intuitive decision to buy is then communicated to the conscious mind via an emotion. The conscious mind then searches for rational reasons, and that’s how we complete the circle: We justify our emotional signals to buy with logical reasons. Phew, the illusion is now complete that the conscious mind that we identify with is in control so we can feel safe and secure.

You could say “so what, who cares?” But did you know that 95% of our purchase decisions, according to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, take place unconsciously? And yet, when we seek to persuade c-level executives, we sell almost exclusively to Mr. Rational, and wonder why deals get stuck in paralysis for analysis and end in no decision.

The article concludes we need to sell to both, and for most that means we must get better at selling to Mr. Intuitive. And because intuitive decision making is experiential, we can influence Mr. Intuitive by making our offering feel real with customer scenarios. This is no different than business schools using case studies to make their abstract theories tangible so that students can metabolize the information.

It’s also no different than what I have experienced selling complex products to c-level executives. Because of the limitation of our working memory to remember more than 3–4 pieces of new information at a time, it’s easy to flood customers with too much information. But if you can turn your product story into a customer centric story, the customer can then step into your idea and take it out for a virtual test drive. This enables the customer run your idea through their accumulated wisdom to see if it feels right.

I had this experience last week when a CEO complained that it took him a day and a half to read my book Insight Selling. “But it’s only 120 pages,” I said. “It should have taken you no longer than 2-hours.” “Yes” he said, “but every few pages I’d have to stop and run your ideas through a simulation in my mind to see if it felt right on a sales call.”

I find this topic fascinating, and I’d love to hear your views and/or recommendations for further information.

About the Author

Michael Harris is CEO of Insight Demand, and author of Insight Selling- Sell Value & Differentiate Your Product With Insight Scenarios.

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