There’s a lot of talk about how understanding human psychology will make you a better marketer…

And in fact, I got looped into a conversation today, in The Copywriter Club Facebook group, about this very topic.

(I was interviewed on The Copywriter Club podcast a bit back — if you haven’t listened, you should.)

One of the group’s members was talking about how she had two Psych degrees.  And how in all of that, there were no courses that actually discussed business, sales, or marketing.

(My wife got a Ph.D. in Psychology, and they also didn’t discuss business — not even the basic business requirements to succeed in a private practice as a counseling psychologist — imagine that!)

But this newer copywriter had heard about these mythical creatures who’d had some academic background in Psychology before being drawn into the dark side of business, marketing, and making big profits with our understanding of the ins and outs of the human mind…

In the flurry of tagging of copywriters that fit the bill, I got thrown in.  Rightfully so, because I got a BA in Psychology before realizing my future wasn’t in the field.

But I, like others, have oft repeated the claim that my background in Psychology was indeed helpful in being a better copywriter and marketer.

And yet, aside from some basic stuff like understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (which most people can get just by Googling it), I didn’t have a clear response to WHY my understanding of Psychology has contributed to my success as a copywriter.

It’s time to rectify that.

And, in rectifying it, to give you a pile of value, as I seek to do every day in these essays.

So, I came up with a list of 3 lessons from psychology that will make you a better marketer…

Shall we?

  1. Crowds behave in predictable ways…

There’s an entire field of psychology, best known for one of its early leaders, Pavlov, dedicated to studying behavior.  In fact, it’s called…  Drum roll…  Behavioral Psychology.

What Behavioral Psychologists study is the stimulus-response cycle.

That is, they look at how humans (or animals) respond to things.

Pavlov’s famous experiment looked at dogs.  Put food in front of a dog (stimulus) and they salivate (response).

Then, he took it one step further.  He added a bell to the equation.  Present the food alongside ringing the bell, the dog salivates.  Do it again, and again, and again.  Same thing happens.  Eventually, you can ring the bell and the dog salivates, even if there’s no food there.

The dog has created an association between the ringing bell and food, so now it responds to the alternate stimulus of the bell with the same response as it would respond to the food itself.

Interesting, but not totally relevant, except as an introduction to the study of behavior.

Since Pavlov and his dogs, Psychologists have conducted thousands of behavioral experiments.  (Maybe millions?)  And certainly not just on dogs.  Humans, too.

Many of them are not relevant to business, but many are.

(Buy all of Robert Cialdini’s books if you’re really interested in this topic.  Start with Influence and Pre-Suasion.)

Start looking at Behavioral Psych studies though, and you’ll notice some really interesting things.

For one, not everybody responds the same.

In fact, this is REALLY important for marketing and selling.

It’s very common for a sales message to totally hook one buyer, and not another.  Whereas a different sales message might hook the second buyer, and not the first.

On an individual basis, we all respond in totally unpredictable ways.  We each have too many unique qualities and quirks for our individual behavior to be all that predictable.

However, the bigger the sample size, the more you’ll see trends emerge.

And so among any group of 10,000 people that fit a certain set of criteria, you may find that you can get 23.8% to consistently respond to a specific marketing message.  And if you can find another group of 10,000 that’s pretty much identical to the first, you’re likely to get about 23.8% to respond to the same message.

When you’re thinking about rolling a marketing message out from your test audience of 5,000 to a bigger audience of 50,000 or 500,000 this becomes really important!

As long as the new group roughly matches the previous group (let’s say, a randomized sample from a list of buyers of a complimentary product), your response rates should stay pretty reliable.

There are a LOT more layers of understanding from Behavioral Psychology that we could unpack, but I’ve got two more lessons to cover here…

  1. Everyone is diagnosable, for better or worse… (Which is the dark side of both fields)

This stirred up the most debate, and raised the most questions.

Here’s what I mean.  I re-shared the video a couple weeks ago about how “We’re all F-cked Up, Broken, & Insecure” (which is very NSFW if language bothers you).

From the inside, we all see our own flaws.  We all recognize ways that we are broken.

And especially relevant here — we also see all the ways where we’re not fulfilling our potential.

Now, one of the ways the mental health field decides if an illness is diagnosable or not is determining the level of impact it is having on various areas of our lives — such as work, school, personal relationships, etc.

In some cases, it’s clear cut.  If someone has severe Schizophrenia, they probably need the diagnosis, the medicine, and so on.  For their own health and well-being, and that of those around them.

I’m not saying medicine is bad, or the mental health field is bad, or any of that.

But look at my own ADHD diagnosis.

I took all the tests.  I was on the edge.  But I became diagnosable because I said I often had a mental fog and couldn’t concentrate in certain work situations, plus I had a history in school of either passing or failing classes based on how much I liked them.

Eventually, that got me heavy-duty ADHD meds, which was a disaster.

Today, I don’t have perfect productivity.  But I’m most definitely off my meds.  And by putting myself in situations and contexts where I’m focused on my unique abilities and strengths, most of the symptoms of ADHD disappear, most of the time.

So what needed to change?  My brain chemistry?  Or my situation?

And if changing the situation is what made the difference, was the way my mind worked ever really the problem?

The thing is, nobody’s normal.  We all have problems, and challenges, and struggles.

The medical and pharmaceutical companies stand to make a ton of profit by attaching a diagnosis to those struggles, and selling us treatments and medications as the solution.  In some cases, necessary.  But even when drugs aren’t necessary, they’ve normalized the justification for it, and society has accepted drugs as the best solution.

So teachers who can’t keep students engaged tell the parent to get an ADHD diagnosis (not what happened to me, I was diagnosed voluntarily as an adult), and the kids get drugs so they can focus.

Again, not sweating the medical industry too much, because the same thing happens in business, all the time.

How different is it, let’s say, to sell gold investing advice by stoking fears of hyperinflation in the United States?  Or to sell weight loss programs on the pitch that if you don’t have the right body, you’re going to get laughed off the beach?

Or…  Insert whatever insecurity, vulnerability, or feeling of brokenness you want here…

We all see our own problems, clearly, from the inside out.  We’re dying for others to recognize them, and throw us a lifeline.

And, in fact, I think most people want to know even more about what’s wrong with them.  They want to be diagnosed more, not less.  It’s a sick twist of human nature.  Unless you’re really proactive about adopting a different mindset, your natural state is to only be happy when you’re unhappy.

As marketers, this can be an opportunity.  Remember my copywriting formula: Problem, Agitate, Invalidate, Solve, Ask?  It starts by recognizing a spark of a problem we can fan into an emotional flame, before coming in as the hero and rescuing the prospect with our offer.

The question, in medicine, as well as in business, is how you’ve weighted the final outcome.

Is your product effective?  Does the problem need to be solved for the prospect to live a good life?  Can your service actually solve it?  Is the outcome win-win, or win-lose?

I’ve known quite a few marketers who play in the gray area.  They know how to get people to diagnose themselves for problems that don’t necessarily need to be diagnosed, much less solved.  But they do it, sell the solution, and collect windfall profits.  Even as the customers are left worse off for it, or no better.

There are also plenty more marketers who have this same understanding of human psychology, but who are also dedicated to the customer getting the best result.  And so they focus on a problem that really does need to be solved, sell a solution that works, and everyone is better off for it.  (This is my kind of marketer.)

The big point here is that we all know what’s wrong with us.  And we’re happy to buy a solution.  This is an opportunity for people in business.  But it’s also fraught with ethical risk if you exploit this risk, so stay away from the dark side!


  1. Statistics, statistics, statistics…

Gary Halbert once said, and many others have repeated, that marketing is a combination of behavioral psychology and math. And really, I’ll add, the math is all statistics.

One of the most valuable courses I took in getting my Psych degree was an intro to statistics class.  Not just because it’s where I met my wife.  But also, because the same kind of statistics you use for running a scientific experiment are relevant to scientific advertising!

So, things like statistical significance, sample sizes, and control conditions — all common in Psychology statistics — are really powerful tools when applied in direct marketing.

In fact, scientific advertising uses pretty much the exact same language and statistical analysis as research in Psychology.

The main difference is we’re testing response to an ad in the marketplace, instead of response to a specific research scenario, most often in a lab.

It’s not a perfect overlap.  And the kind of scientific rigor generally required for publication in professional journals isn’t required when you’re deciding, “Should I spend another $5,000 continuing to test this ad?”

But every bit of statistics knowledge I picked up in learning Psychology has continued to pay off in marketing.

Some final thoughts…

I think there are many layers to this onion, and this essay doesn’t capture anywhere near all of how understanding human psychology has made me a better copywriter.

But these are the three biggest, most applicable lessons from the field of psychology to the field of direct marketing and copywriting.

And if you get them, study them, dive into them, embrace them…

It will be a breakthrough.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr