How to be More Successful by Using Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons.

By Chuck Pettis

Chuck Pettis


We have three brains: The Cortex Brain (rational), the Limbic Brain (emotional), and the Reptilian Brain (instinctual).

The Reptilian Brain is found in all animals, including humans!

The Reptilian Brain is instinctive, has no language, and is the center for aggression, courtship, mating, and territorial defense.

Bottomline? Survival and sex.

The key emotions of the Reptilian Brain are fear, pain, and mating. To get the attention of your target audience, nothing beats a Reptilian Hot Button that evokes pain or fear or (pardon me) sex.

The Limbic Brain is common to all mammals. It is the brain’s emotional factory, collecting sensory information and screening it for emotional relevance.

When reptiles have babies, no mother is required. At Earth Sanctuary, I once watched a Painted Pond Turtle laying eggs in a hole she had dug (See above). When she was done, she carefully filled up the hole and waddled back to the pond. When the eggs hatch, the baby turtles are on their own.

When mammals have babies, mother and father are required. So the Limbic Brain is oriented toward our offspring and children so that we will rear and care for our own children.

The Limbic Brain is also the “play” center. Limbic resonance is the attunement of two mammals to each other’s inner states as in a woman and man dancing!

How do you discover your Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons?

For clients of my brand consulting company, Brand-Solutions, I developed a simple technique to discover a brand’s Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons. First, here is a short list of attributes for Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons.

Reptilian Hot Buttons

  • Fear
  • Survival — food, clothing, shelter, health, personal and financial security
  • Territorial defense, strong versus weak
  • Reproduction, sex, mating
  • Rituals, fixed action patterns & behaviors
  • Aromas

Limbic Hot Buttons

  • Higher-level emotional feelings — love, belonging, friendship, intimacy, family, self esteem
  • Our relationship with our children, our family, our partner, our customers.

In Brand-Solutions Branding Workshops, I present the list of Reptilian Hot Buttons and ask the leadership team to brainstorm possible Reptilian Hot Buttons for their brand. Then, we vote to find the top 2–3 Reptilian Hot Buttons.

Actual easel list of brainstormed Reptilian Hot Buttons

I remember one client who told me in advance that they didn’t think they had any Reptilian Hot Buttons. They filled up three easel sheets!

Here are some Reptilian Hot Buttons from Brand-Solutions clients:

  • Won’t achieve goals
  • Fear of failure
  • Feel alone and disconnected
  • Fear of being left behind
  • Isolation, fear, injustice
  • Financial peril
  • Fear of unknown threats
  • Fear of being taken advantage of
  • Panic, Frustration
  • Anger

And here are some Limbic Hot Buttons from Brand-Solutions clients:

  • Proud to make an impact on individuals & the world
  • Build a caring, nurturing community
  • Peace of mind
  • Empowerment
  • Confidence

Using the Reptilian Hot Button to Limbic Hot Button Technique

Once you have identified the brand’s Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons, you construct stories or get testimonials that begin with a short Reptilian Hot Button to get the target audience’s attention and then you quickly move to Limbic Hot Button images and copy.

Here are some examples of TV commercials that use this technique. The same technique can be applied to any product, service or cause.

In this Embrel TV ad, a boy shares his worry about his mom’s painful rheumatoid arthritis, wondering if she will be able to do all the things she normally does. Notice how the ad starts with the boy’s worry about his Mom’s pain and ends showing loving scenes of Mom and the boy.

The Reptilian Hot Button (pain!) gets Embrel’s target audience’s attention. It is best to push the Reptilian Hot Button quickly before the fear reaction takes hold. Now that you have the target audience’s attention, show Limbic Hot Button images (happy boy and mother together and mother doing the activities she couldn’t without Embrel) to evoke higher level emotions like love and happiness.

Here’s another example:

At the beginning of this commercial for Lyrica, the woman talks about the “shooting, burning, pins and needles of diabetic nerve pain.” That is definitely a Reptilian Hot Button! Then appears the positioning statement: “Lyrica is FDA approved to treat diabetic nerve pain.” The end of the ad is filled with Limbic images of children dancing (this is called Limbic Resonance) while the woman can now dance without her pain. As you watch the ad, observe how the Limbic images block out the voice-over of all the potential side-effects.

This Reptilian Hot Button to Limbic Hot Button technique can be applied to any product, service or cause.

Now, you are educated. Start watching and listening for Reptilian and Limbic Hot Buttons. I think you will be surprised at how pervasive and persuasive they are.

Good luck!

To connect with Chuck Pettis, visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on LinkedIn.



Chuck Pettis

I love branding that uplifts the human spirit.