5 sales psychology lessons backed by research

Estimated reading time
7 minutes
28th January 2021
Author: Kit McKay
Posted in: Psychology, Sales

Did you know that only 3 percent of people trust sales reps? The only professions considered less trustworthy are politicians and lobbyists. This highlights the uphill battle the average salesperson faces every day. But the most effective salespeople don’t shy away from this bias. They offset it. Understanding the behavior of buyers is key to reducing distrust. Below, you’ll find the five best experiments on sales psychology to get started:

Sales psychology lesson #1: The mere exposure effect

The mere exposure effect describes the phenomenon where people develop a preference for something just because it’s familiar.

To study this, Robert Zajonc took out ads in student newspapers at two different universities in Michigan. Every day, the front page of each paper contained some Turkish words. Some words appeared more often than others, and this frequency was reversed in each paper.

After a few weeks, students at both universities were asked to give their impressions of 12 “unfamiliar” Turkish words, some of which had appeared in the newspapers. They rated each word from one to seven based on whether they thought the words meant something good or bad (none of the students could actually speak Turkish). The results found a direct correlation between perceived positivity and how often they’d been secretly exposed to the words.

Key takeaway

This effect highlights the importance of collaboration with marketing in influencing sales psychology. The more familiar a brand is to someone, the more likely they are to think positively towards it, or at least to see it as a legitimate offering.

A prospect smiles at a message from a brand he recognises

In the cases where marketing is not involved, salespeople themselves can still reach this level of familiarity by being persistent (up to a point) in their cold outreach. This is one lesson many don’t take on board. While 80 percent of sales require five follow-up calls, 44 percent of salespeople give up after just one.

Sales psychology lesson #2: Implicit vs explicit comparisons

It’s very likely that the topic of competitors will come up in sales conversations. But whether that subject is introduced implicitly or explicitly can make all the difference.

Implicit comparisons happen when the buyer takes their own initiative to research the market.

Explicit comparisons happen when the seller specifically compares their offering to that of their competitors.

A Stanford study looked at this on eBay. They put a popular CD up for auction and “framed” it between two identical CDs at different prices coming from different sellers, so people who came across the CD would also come across those two “competitors”.

When buyers were left to their own devices, the prices of the competitor CDs influenced the bid on the test CD, even pushing the price up (the perceived value) at times.

However, when buyers were directly told to make comparisons, they found that this relationship no longer mattered. Buyers became much more risk-averse and cautious in their purchases. This resulted in a decrease in buyer confidence in multiple ways:

  • Fewer bids
  • Longer time spent on their first bid
  • Less of a likelihood to participate in multiple auctions

Key takeaway

Comparative selling can be very powerful. It can directly influence the value seen in your product. But it has to be approached tactfully. You should lay out the full value of your offering (not just pricing), allow the buyer to do their own research on competitors, and be open to answering any questions they may have. Allow the buyer to steer this conversation and you’ll offset the confidence risk.

Taking a less direct approach to sales is good advice in general when dealing with the modern buyer. While only 17 percent of salespeople would describe themselves as “pushy”, 50 percent of prospects think otherwise.

Sales psychology lesson #3: Social proof

Social proof is simply the concept that people will do what the majority of other people do.

The Solomon Asch Conformity Experiment shows an extreme example of this. Asch wanted to prove that people trust herd mentality even when making the wrong decision.

He showed a single line to multiple groups of eight people. They then had to compare that line to three other lines of varying lengths and choose which one was the same length as the original line. However, there was a catch. Only one person in each group was actually being monitored. The other seven were planted by Asch and told beforehand what their answers would be. The correct answer was always obvious and the people who were really being monitored always went last. 

There were 18 trials and the insiders were told to give a wrong answer in 12 of them. During those 12 tests, 75 percent of the people being monitored went along with the group and chose the wrong answer at least once. In the remaining trials where the insiders gave the correct answer, the people being monitored chose the wrong answer less than 1 percent of the time. 

When the unknowing participants were asked why they conformed, Asch found that people follow social proof for one of two reasons:

  • They want to fit in with the group
  • They believe the group is better informed than they are

Key takeaway

Selling through a network can be a powerful way to leverage the influence of your buyer’s relationships. In fact, people who have been referred by a friend are four times more likely to buy than someone who hasn’t. 

A group of coworkers share recommendations in the office

One particularly effective way to grow your network through existing customers is to adopt a social selling approach (using social media to engage with online communities). This can boost your visibility to secondhand connections. For reference, 65 percent of salespeople who use social selling fill their pipeline, compared to 47 percent of reps who do not.

Sales psychology lesson #4: Choice paralysis

When it comes to making decisions, the human brain can be easily overwhelmed. This is called choice paralysis

In 2000, two psychologists carried out an experiment at an upscale food market. On one day, shoppers were shown a gourmet jam stall with 24 different flavors. On another day, they were shown only six different flavors.

While the stand with 24 flavors received the most attention and footfall, these people were actually only 10 percent as likely to buy something as the shoppers who came across the six-flavor stand.

“Psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored the outcome of choice: more of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out,” explains Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.”

Key takeaway

Giving people too much choice increases the weight of their decision and how it mentally affects them. This is particularly strong in B2B selling where the stakes (and price tags) are much higher. Sometimes, in the rush to fulfill the needs of the buyer, you can overwhelm them with too much information and too many choices.

According to a survey on the best ways to create a positive sales experience, some of the top choices from buyers were for the salesperson to “listen to their needs” (7 in 10) and “provide relevant information” (6 in 10). Limit information to what they specifically need to know and offer a smaller range of tailored options.

Sales psychology lesson #5: Reciprocity

One of the key features of human nature is the urge to give something back when we receive something for free. This behavior is called reciprocity.

A study at Cornell University explored this by placing individuals in a room and telling them they were going to evaluate some art. 

While carrying out this fake exercise, half of the subjects were left to get on with it, but the other half were interrupted by a planted assistant who slipped out of the room to get himself a drink from the vending machine. When the lab assistant came back, he had “bought” an extra Coke for the participant.

After the art evaluation was completed, all of the subjects were asked if they’d like to buy a raffle ticket. The researchers found that the subjects who had been given a Coke from the assistant bought two times as many raffle tickets as those who received nothing.

Key takeaway

This behavior is well known in e-commerce sales, but it’s just as applicable in other sales relationships if you expand your definition of a “gift”. For example, a personalized piece of content shows that you invested your resources into creating something for them. A message full of very specific details shows that you invested your time researching them. This is all more likely to trigger a response than something generic that was copied and pasted.

The majority of salespeople agree with this. 76 percent of sellers say that prospects appreciate when deals and documents are personalized.


Hungry for more sales psychology? Take a look at the behavioral science behind what makes a great sales proposal in our interactive guide:

Thumbnail for an interactive guide on more sales psychology