What Is Neuromarketing: Manipulating Customers?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is neuromarketing? How do marketing experts take advantage of psychology to manipulate you into buying?

Neuromarketing is when marketers use brain research to find out how they can manipulate customers into buying more. Many of these practices rely on dopamine traps.

Here are some of the most common neuromarketing traps and advice on how to avoid them.

Neuromarketing: Marketing That Caters to Your Brain

What is neuromarketing? Well, since dopamine makes you keen on immediate gratification, it’s not surprising that so many people today suffer from obsessions and compulsions. And it’s also not surprising that the field known as “neuromarketing” has skyrocketed. Marketing experts use brain research to find out what they can do to make you want more and buy more. 

Marketing tactics based on dopamine traps are ubiquitous. Businesses understand that our brains are attracted to sales, and especially sales under time pressure (as in “act fast for these one-day doorbusters!”). Our brains are also lured by evocative scents like cinnamon in the fall and winter and coconut in the summer. 

Every chain restaurant knows they need to keep adding new products—as in “I’d like a lavender chai latte infused with nitrogen gas, please”—because dopamine loves novelty. The old brain rewards eventually become dull, but the promise of a novel reward reignites the spark. 

Your Brain’s Response to Neuromarketing 

If you find yourself heading to the nearest gourmet grocery store whenever you’re bored, it might be because your brain knows it’s a reliable place to get a dopamine rush. Everything smells so good, looks so pretty, and tastes delicious. Even the piped-in music is appealing. And it’s all engineered to hook you. 

This doesn’t mean you should never let yourself browse your favorite upscale market. Life is better with rewards—and even sometimes with only the promise of reward. Our brains’ reward system keeps life interesting and fun. The key is to know the difference between real rewards—those that actually make us happy and give our life meaning—and false rewards that only serve to distract us (and wind up making us feel bad).

Example: Jane drives to the mall whenever she’s bored or unhappy, convinced that shopping is the quick fix she needs. But when Jane turns off her default mode and analyzes her feelings, she realizes that she’s always happier on the way to the mall than she is when she’s shopping or driving home afterward. She realizes that she feels impatient and anxious when she’s inside the stores, and she doesn’t enjoy making purchases. 

For Jane, going to the mall delivers the promise of feeling good, but being there and buying stuff doesn’t feel good. She decides to make dopamine work for her rather than against her: Now when she needs cheering up, she still goes to the mall, but she only walks around and window-shops. She doesn’t bring her credit cards, she doesn’t buy anything, and she doesn’t leave feeling bad. 

Willpower Hack: Keep Close Watch on Your Dopamine Triggers 

Since dopamine triggers are all around us, it’s worth considering which of your willpower failures are related to traps found in your everyday environment. We all have different triggers depending on what stimulates our individual brains. 

For example, let’s say you turn to TikTok when you’re bored or unhappy. Maybe watching a few funny dog videos makes you laugh, and you quickly feel better. But do you turn it off after enjoying 10 minutes of laughter, or do you keep watching until two hours have passed, the videos don’t seem funny anymore, and you feel like you’ve wasted a beautiful afternoon? 

What Is Neuromarketing: Manipulating Customers?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kelly McGonigal's "The Willpower Instinct" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Willpower Instinct summary:

  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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