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Updated Feb 23, 2024

The Science of Persuasion: How to Influence Consumer Choice

There's a science to persuasion, and you can use it to your advantage in understanding and influencing consumer behavior.

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Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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How do you get someone to buy a product or service? This question has preoccupied marketing departments for decades. Psychological insights can help explain how persuasion works – and how people respond to attempts to influence their behavior. 

When attempting to influence consumer decisions, it helps to understand the psychology behind human behavior. Knowing your audience’s demographics and how they respond to specific marketing efforts can provide valuable direction. 

We’ll explain more about the psychology of consumer behavior and share techniques for effectively influencing consumer decisions. 

What is consumer behavior?

Consumer behavior comprises the actions and decisions individuals make when purchasing specific products or supporting certain brands. This area of study focuses primarily on behavior, motivations and psychology. 

The following three areas significantly affect how consumers respond to marketing efforts and why they buy what they buy:

  • Psychological factors: How a person responds to advertising, marketing or PR campaigns depends largely on their perceptions, attitudes and general view of life.
  • Personal factors: Audience demographics, such as age, culture, profession and background, play a significant role in forming consumers’ interests and opinions.
  • Social factors: A person’s social groups affect how they shop. Their income, education level and social class influence their buying behaviors.

How can marketing affect consumer behavior and decisions?

Marketing can be highly effective in influencing consumer behavior. The following factors contribute to that success:

  • Emotional response affects consumer decisions. Marketing campaigns are effective when consumers respond to them. When many people react positively to your marketing campaigns, they’ll talk about them and boost brand recognition. And when broad audience segments discuss your brand and products, more people will likely buy your offerings.
  • Brand imagery and messaging affect consumer decisions. Using imagery and word associations is a great way to attract attention to your brand. For example, if you want to target young people, you may use popular phrases and memes as a part of your campaign. Your audience will associate your product with things they already see as hip and trendy.
  • Audience memories affect consumer decisions. Successful marketing builds customer loyalty by evoking emotions like nostalgia and fear. For example, if a product is tied to specific brands, thoughts, images or music from your childhood, this may influence your feelings of brand loyalty. On the other hand, if a marketing campaign makes you fearful, you may be influenced to buy the product to relieve anxiety and protect yourself. 
Experiential marketing – directly engaging consumers and encouraging them to participate in a brand experience – is a highly effective way to build customer and brand loyalty.

How to influence consumer decisions through the 6 principles of influence

Robert Cialdini is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. At the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Cialdini synthesized years of research on social influence into six universal principles for understanding attempts to influence human behavior. 

“Persuasion is no longer just an art; it’s an out-and-out science,” Cialdini asserted. “Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when and why people say yes to influence attempts.”

Businesses and consumers can use Cialdini’s principles to better understand the inner workings of purchasing behaviors and to determine which strategies are most likely to succeed.

  1. Reciprocity: Humans often feel the need to return a favor or reciprocate kind gestures. For consumers, this might mean offering a free sample or a generous discount through a customer loyalty program.
  2. Commitment: Once someone is engaged with something, they are more likely to stick with it. In business, this means cultivating brand loyalty; once someone uses a product or service, they are more likely to commit to paying for it again.
  3. Consensus: If more people do something, others are likely to do it too. When brands can demonstrate their popularity or satisfaction across a broad customer base, other consumers are more likely to buy in.
  4. Authority: People are more likely to listen to an expert than anyone off the street. So, while pack mentality is important, a relevant expert speaking to the effectiveness of a brand’s product or service is crucial to converting new consumers.
  5. Liking: People who are similar to the target customer are more likely to persuade the consumer to buy. People from similar demographics – whether in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religious inclination or even shared interests – are far more effective at persuading consumers than those they perceive as vastly different.
  6. Scarcity: People tend to want what they perceive they cannot have. Making a product or service seem exclusive or as if it will go out of stock if they don’t act quickly often makes it more enticing to the consumer and increases the likelihood of buying.
Did You Know?Did you know
After publishing his groundbreaking insights on the six principles of influence in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini added a seventh principle: unity. The unity principle essentially states that when a consumer feels included, they're more likely to participate.

Influencing consumer choice

With a clearer understanding of the psychology behind consumer choices, companies can more adeptly tweak their marketing plans, navigate potential consumers and convert more sales. However, Cialdini warned against crossing the line between influence and manipulation, as the latter could spell disaster in the long run.

“People, companies and marketers need to ask themselves whether the principle of influence is inherent in the situation – that is, do they have to manufacture it, or can they simply uncover it?” Cialdini cautioned. “No one wants to be a smuggler of influence. Claiming to be an expert when they’re not, exploiting power – those eventually will have negative consequences.

Cialdini said that focusing on psychological motivators is key. “We can focus too heavily on economic factors when seeking to motivate others toward our offerings and ideas,” Cialdini added. “We would do well … to consider employing psychological motivators such as those we have covered here.”

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.

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Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Sean Peek is the co-founder of a self-funded small business that employs more than a dozen team members. His years of hands-on entrepreneurial experience in bootstrapping, operations management, process automation and leadership have strengthened his knowledge of the B2B world and the most pressing issues facing business owners today. Peek uses his expertise to guide fellow small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in the areas of marketing, finance and software technology. Peek excels at developing customer bases and fostering long-term client relationships, using lean principles to drive efficiency and cost-saving, and identifying growth areas. He has demonstrated his business savvy through collaborations with Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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