How The Unconscious Mind Affects Purchase Decisions

Most people have bought products on an impulse that they did not need – the new gadgets in the kitchen cupboards, the exercise equipment in the garage or the unworn clothes in the wardrobe. Often it is easy to see why a product does not get used, but why do people buy these things in the first place? In this email we explore five ways in which the unconscious mind can trigger unwanted purchases.

The unconscious mind affects the behaviour of consumers: under the influence of basic evolutionary drives and the marketing tactics that play on them, it’s easy to feel compelled to buy something that later does not get used. People do not tend to remember their bad purchase decisions. Like a gambler who only remembers the wins, the feel-good buzz that comes from spontaneously buying something that turns out to be a great buy leaves a much greater impression in people’s memories than the product that was bought in the same way but never used.

So what’s going on inside consumers’ heads when they buy on impulse?


The simplest explanation is that some people just derive an enormous amount of pleasure – or utility  – from acquiring something new. And since consumers not only pay for the product, but also for the pleasure they experience from the purchase, an economist could argue that it is still worth its price – even if it never gets used. But why do people value new things more highly in the first place? The explanation could be traced back to consumers’ childhoods. Children are often conditioned by their parents to feel good about something new being handed to them. Looking back a couple of generations ago makes clear why this was an understandable sentiment. But if consumers indulge themselves (or their children) too often, novelty becomes the goal and potentially more important than the actual value of the product.

If consumers indulge themselves (or their children) too often, novelty becomes the goal.


Buying a product on discount rather than for its full price makes obvious economic sense. However, discounts only save consumers money if they would have bought the product anyway.

Retailers have learned that consumers are very susceptible to the loss aversion switch – the innate concern to avoid feeling bad in the future. A discount that won’t last forever switches the unconscious focus to the fear of missing out on a deal. It may feel like saving money but consumers often fail to see that the discount was the reason that made them buy the product in the first place


Consumers do not have the time or means to make their purchase decisions in an economically rational way. They would need to cross-reference every product with every other product available in the market on price, product composition, reviews and maybe even the quality of customer service supporting it. Even if all the information was available in comparable formats it would take hours to buy even a cup of coffee.

People use heuristics – unconsciously held rules of thumb – that help make quick decisions.

So instead people use heuristics – unconsciously held rules of thumb – that help make quick decisions that generally work out well. Consumers may have learned that bigger packages are generally better value than smaller ones – and trust this heuristic rather than compare prices. Retailers can play on these heuristics by packaging up products as bulk buys, or including ‘free’ extras. Heuristics tell the consumer that these deals must be good value, and so they go with their feeling rather than researching any further.


A susceptibility to ‘value’ and apparent discounts isn’t just down to the loss aversion switch; many people have an innate desire to save. Marketing messages often focus on how much money consumers could save by buying and using a product. Thousands of years ago, knowing that it was important to store up food and wood for the winter would be the difference between life and death. These days, most people in this part of the world no longer need to worry about their day-to-day survival, but the evolutionary drive remains.

While saving can be the economically rational thing to do if the discounted future value of money or time is higher than today’s value, the strong psychological drive to save can cause consumers to react to the idea of saving even if it is not beneficial to them.


Finally, we have a psychological bias towards optimism. Most people believe themselves to be better than average looking, better than average drivers, better than average parents… Clearly, they can’t all be right.

... they may think they will start to exercise if they buy that new Ab-Toner.

Rather than look back and evaluate past actions, people tend to look to the future with an idealised view of what it might be like. They may think they will start to exercise if they buy that new Ab-Toner and start cooking grand dinners if they buy the latest kitchen gadget. In reality, they are likely to be deluding themselves.

Ultimately, there is little doubt that retailers can take advantage of the role the unconscious mind plays in shaping our behaviour. However, if consumers come to learn that they are being taken advantage of in an unfair way, the risk is that a new heuristic is formed… “Don’t trust retailer X”.

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