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August 26, 2021

How Instincts Rule Our Choices: My Expert Interview With Matthew Willcox

Rachel Salaman


I've just ordered 48 rolls of toilet paper from a brand I've had my eye on for a while. It has strong sustainability credentials and highly rated products. But until now, I hadn't got further than browsing the website. Today, I finally clicked the "buy" button. And, thanks to my podcast interview with author and marketing consultant Matthew Willcox, I've got a pretty good idea why.

In his book, "The Business of Choice: How Human Instinct Influences Everyone's Decisions," he digs deep into "behavioral insights." In other words, how unconscious instincts can sometimes nudge us to choose one thing over another.

How Does Human Instinct Sway Choice?

Willcox works in marketing, where this knowledge can help organizations sell products and services. But he believes that understanding how our instincts dictate our choices can be useful to anyone.

In this clip from my Expert Interview podcast, Matthew Willcox explains the importance of understanding how human instinct can sway the decisions that we make.

Looking at my toilet paper purchase through a behavioral science lens, I can see a few instincts at play.

For a start, there's what Willcox calls "Social Proof." This is when we're encouraged to do something because other people are doing it. One example Willcox references is how the U.K. government persuaded more people to pay a hard-to-collect tax by sending them a letter stating that similar folks had paid it on time.

I bought my toilet paper with a £5 discount voucher sent to me by a friend. She also got £5 off her next purchase. Not only did this give us a sense of togetherness in our choice of brand, it also had a little financial perk.

Positioning the Consumer as Expert

Getting a bargain made me feel positive about my purchase, and this speaks to a fundamental human instinct – our desire to feel good. There are lots of ways for marketers to achieve this, according to Matthew Willcox. From the age-old tactic of offering discounts, to using quizzes and surveys, which makes consumers feel more like experts.

For me, the toilet paper brand's sustainability credentials made the most difference. The product is 100 percent recycled, and 50 percent of the profits go toward building toilets in communities where they're needed. This boosted the "feel-good" factor of my purchase. It also wrapped in another behavioral insight: we're hardwired to compare.

"If you put us in front of one washing machine and you ask us to assess its capabilities, we don't do very well," Willcox says. "But, if you put two different machines in front of us, we will be able to compare one to the other. We will probably not stop until somebody tells us to stop doing it, because suddenly we have a frame of reference."

Comparing Comes Easy

This rings true for me. It was easy to compare my new toilet paper brand's green credentials with my old brand's lack of them. But I didn't stop there. Before I placed my order, I compared the number of sheets in each toilet roll with the product I used to buy. The new eco choice had more than double, further reinforcing my decision.

This instinct to compare is driven by how our brains work, Willcox says. For example, we naturally reach for the familiar. In this case, the familiar is my old brand of toilet paper, which I used as a comparator. And we like things to be easy.

"It's much easier to play off an existing mental model we have, an existing sense of something we have... and apply that to the new thing, than it is to create something new from the ground up," he explains.

Ethical Nudging

Nudging people's decisions with their own instincts can be a powerful tool. But one that should be wielded carefully and ethically.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. For example, Willcox says, "...there have been a number of cases where insights from behavioral science have been used to get people to sign up for loans with ridiculously high interest rates... You have to make sure you're encouraging people to make choices that are beneficial for them."

If this sounds a bit like manipulation, consider the alternative – if you can persuade people to make a beneficial decision by activating their instincts, isn't it worse to keep them in the dark?

"If you don't do anything, you're also affecting a choice," Willcox points out. "There's no neutral, really, in the world of choice architecture."

Certainly, as a consumer, I want to know that my toilet paper is recycled and helps to build facilities for people who don't have them. Do I mind that the brand is using the feel-good factor to get my custom? Frankly, in this case, not at all.

Listen to My Interview With Matthew Willcox

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with my series of Mind Tools Expert Interviews.

If you're not a Mind Tools Club member, you can join here, and access over 2,400 resources, including more than 200 Expert Interviews. For corporate licensing, request a demo from one of our team.

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