How Motivated Reasoning Creates a Press Secretary In Your Customer's Mind
Customers rationalize what they already want, in spite of our best intentions
We have many reasons customers should buy from us: Our products are better, cheaper, more innovative, or deliver something unique. Yet customers don’t use much rationale until after they make a decision. Understanding why this happens unlocks new levers for growth.
Customers first process our products with very fast filtering to see if what we offer even belongs in their world. That filtering is shaped by their values - what’s essential to a customer before considering features and benefits. Those values come from various sources, especially their worldview as conservative or liberal. It’s why conservative and liberal customers align with different brands, buy different products, and consume different media.
This goes far beyond thinking about values as something like “integrity” or “honesty.” Instead, this is about a set of values that shape how the customer sees the world and what they see fitting into their lives. A product that fits doesn’t just solve a problem; it feels natural to be in the customer’s life.
Motivated Reasoning Makes Or Breaks Purchase
Psychologists refer to applying values to drive decision-making as “motivated reasoning.” It’s about using pre-existing values to drive the rationale for satisfying those values. In other words, values precede reasoning, and reasoning serves the values.
You can bombard your market with millions of great reasons to buy, but none will matter if the customer’s inherent values don’t align with what they see. It happens in seconds and is the gate for considering all those great things you have to say about your products.
In his book Righteous Minds, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to motivated reasoning as like having a press secretary in your head whose job is to defend every decision you make no matter the facts. The press secretary knows what you want, so they only promote evidence to support the decision. That press secretary in your customer’s mind knocks down any product that doesn’t fit the story the customer wants to tell themself, regardless of features and benefits.
When customers use motivated reasoning on your behalf to buy your products, it’s like oil that reduces friction between your business and your market. Customers will more likely ignore what your competitors say about their products, even if they offer something about the same or even a little better.
With motivated reasoning, customers will more likely dismiss negative reviews or negative Google search results about your business by questioning the source (unless the negativity is overwhelming). Customers will actively seek affirmation of your business being the right choice and question the sources of negative information. They become determined to make your answer the “right” answer because your product feels like it belongs.
You can’t change customer values or the voice of the internal press secretary, but you can adapt your business, products, and communications to them to improve business performance. When you bend your business to inherent market and customer values, the customer more rapidly sees the fit, resulting in faster growth, lower customer acquisition costs, and higher customer value.
Today’s Communication Strategies Miss Motivated Reasoning
How businesses typically develop their presentation to the market does not include the ability to enable motivated reasoning right from the start. Whether it’s for a small business website or a $7 million super bowl ad doesn't matter.
Usually, some kind of “brief” kicks off the process of creating communications, which may be a formal document or a conversation with someone working on marketing. This includes some description of an objective, who the market is, what the product does, how it’s different from the competition, and what unique features and benefits it offers. The “brief” may be distilled into a single idea that communications people use as the primary focus for engaging the market.
All of this represents a view of the customer and product from your business. None of it represents the customer's view of your business and product. The most important question that needs to be asked is what will make my business and its products belong in the customer’s world based on their values? Those answers fuel how you engage with your market.
Let’s fix the typical process with a quick strategic exercise for your business.
Tapping Into The Power Of Market Motivated Reasoning
The basic process of this exercise is this: You evaluate your customer and market situation for values derived from worldview. Then you create the lens through which your customers can see your business immediately fitting their view of the world. Then you start testing the strategy at a very low risk.
First, compare the worldview makeup of your customers with your market. If you can’t get information from a customer database report or market research documents, look at age, urbanicity, or overall geography. For example, if your customers or market are younger or more urban, they are more liberal. You may know the answer based on talking to customers or looking at local or regional skews. If the answer yields different worldview skews for customers and the market, you can look at your product and communications to see if they drive the difference.
For extra credit, you can look at the worldview skews of your competitors to see if there is an opportunity to go after one worldview segment while a much larger competitor goes after the other. Using market values to differentiate your business is a powerful way to perform an “end-around” with your competition to go after customers that won’t do business with them.
The answer to this part of the exercise typically involves identifying one of the two groups as having more potential for your business but also recognizing that you will need values that appeal to both. Rarely is any market or customer database composed of one group exclusively. Of course, you may also choose to appeal to both groups equally, but without this exercise, it’s hard to know what that means. The idea here is to be intentional to improve business performance.
The segment you choose will likely be the one that is the largest in your customer database. That segment reflects the inherent worldview alignment between your business and its market. However, there are exceptions. For example, if the business is struggling and the dominant market segment differs from that of your customers, you may want to pivot to the other segment. Of course, this involves more significant changes and risk, but it aligns with how more of your broader market thinks, which significantly mitigates risk.
Building The Value Lens For Your Business
Once you determine your primary worldview segment or both, you can use our customer base model as the foundation for the value lens:
This diagram, derived from decades of social anthropology research, gives you the primary themes for liberal and conservative customers and the foundation for both: American individualism. I haven’t written up the common Individualist attributes very much, but they include ideas around self-determination, competition, self-improvement, productivity, ingenuity, directness, and friendliness/informality. You won’t use all these - just a few that make the most sense for your business. If you want to appeal to both groups equally, focus on just these attributes or combine distinct values for liberal and conservative customers.
Next, you want to bring distinct values to life for your liberal or conservative customer segment. I’ve written up several attributes where conservative and liberal customers have different values, so I won’t go into all the details here, but here’s a current list with links:
Like the foundational Individualist attributes, you want to pick a few that make the most sense for your business. There are more of these coming, but you can start with this list. The idea is to assemble five to seven attributes representing similarities and differences to create the value lens for your business. This then feeds how you present your business to your market. But before you make wholesale changes, you can test this strategy in small doses.
Going To Market With Your New Value Lens
Now you can create tests that enable your market to see your business reflecting what the market believes to be true - to appeal to the market’s collective press secretary. Of course, every business will have a different way to test these ideas, but some low-risk tactics include a customer survey, running small campaigns on Facebook or Google, testing new pages on your website, integrating the value lens into sales presentations, and more.
Targeting one segment or the other is relatively simple. Depending on the platforms or media you use, there may be targeting criteria for customers who are more liberal or conservative. Some media will have natural predispositions for one group or the other. For example, radio and television shows can be ranked for each group. You can also use geography at the zip code, county, or even state level to enable targeting in digital and offline media. It depends on what tactics you typically employ today to build your business.
What’s great about this strategy is that, unlike some marketing tactics, this isn’t about tricking or manipulating anyone. On the contrary, it’s about aligning your business with how your market thinks. The market controls how they think, not your business, despite what some marketing people might say.
Some companies won’t want to engage in this kind of strategy because they will be too entrenched in their current strategy - and therein lies the opportunity. Your business can understand your market at a higher level, creating instant fit with customers. At the same time, your competition continues to push features, benefits, and ideas that ignore market values and the customer’s internal press secretary.
If you have any questions about this, please reply to this email. I’ll do what I can to help address questions if you want to explore this further for your business. There is no cost for this.