Behavioral Economics: How “Triggers” Affect Your Decisions

The following article is a transcript of a lecture by Professor Jonah Berger, Ph.D.

A trigger is any stimulus in the environment that makes us think about a related concept or idea. How do businesses and marketing professionals use this psychological phenomena to their advantage? Welcome to the world of behavioral economics.

photo of a credit card transaction taking place

On July 4, 1997, NASA landed the Pathfinder spacecraft on the surface of the planet Mars. This landing was years in the making and it was a huge success. The mission took years of preparation and millions of dollars in funding, but it received huge attention around the world. People watch the rover ride around the surface of the red planet and parents everywhere bought their children Mars rover toys to celebrate the mission. But over that same period of time, the Mars candy company noticed something unusual: A surprising increase in the sales of its Mars candy bar.

photograph of the Mars Pathfinder robot
It can be argued that the press surrounding the successful landing of the Mars pathfinder robot led to an increase in candy sales for the Mars candy company.

The company was particularly surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. No extra advertising. No change in pricing. And it hadn’t run any special promotions. Yet sales, surprisingly, had gone up. What had happened? Mars bars are named after the company’s founder, Franklin Mars, not the red planet. But all the attention to the planet Mars seem to bolster sales of the Mars candy bar. Customers apparently responded to news about the planet Mars by purchasing more Mars bars.

Now this is a lucky turn of events for a candy company, but what does it mean for our understanding of human behavior? In this lecture, we’re gonna talk about the science of triggers and cues. We’ll talk about what triggers are and how they shape everything from what people think about—or what’s top of mind—to what we like, what we buy, and even how we vote. Why voting in a church, for example, versus a school might change how you cast your ballot. And why hearing French music at the grocery store makes people more likely to buy French wine.

If two things are connected in our mind, seeing one of those things can activate the other.

Learn more: What Is a Good Decision?

What Are Triggers?

Let’s start by defining what triggers are. A trigger is any stimulus in the environment that makes us think about a related concept or idea, any sight, sound, or smell that makes us think of something. If you see a vitamin container on your kitchen counter, for example, that might remind you that it’s time to take your vitamins, that you’ve forgotten for a couple days. If you hear a particular song on the radio, that might remind you of a friend of yours that likes or loves that song. And if you smell some freshly baked, delicious cookies, it might remind you of the ginger snap cookies your mom used to bake every year.

In each of these cases, a sight, like the vitamin container, a sound, like a song, or a smell, like cookies, reminds you of a related thing even though that thing may not be physically present at the moment. The way this works is based on the cognitive psychology that we talked about in the last lecture, about exposure, perception, and memory. Because as we talked about, if two things are connected in our mind, seeing one of those things can activate the other.

Branded Triggers

Just like things have associations, seeing something’s association can remind you of the thing in the first place. Triggers can rely on two types of associations: existing associations, or existing links, or be based on new ones. In the case of Mars bars, for example. Mars the planet is already associated with Mars the bar because they share a common name, both Mars. Mars didn’t have to do any marketing or anything else to link the two together. They’re already connected in your mind. You think about Mars, it reminds you of other things that might be associated with Mars.

picture of a white duck that is used to represent behavioral economics
Does this duck remind you of an insurance company?

In other instances new associations may form. Seeing a white duck, for example, might remind you of the insurance company Aflac. Now, a duck isn’t naturally associated with Aflac, but it gained that association based on repeated pairing with Aflac in ads.

Seeing the white duck together with the brand again and again and again reminded people or connected the two in people’s minds. Now seeing similar ducks, even if they have nothing to do with Aflac, might remind people of the company. In fact, even a duck’s quack might remind you of the brand, sort of because it sounds like Aflac. You hear that sound, you just can’t forget it in your mind. And as we talked about, companies spend lots of money creating these links because they want to remind you of their products or brands.

Learn more: The Rise of Behavioral Economics

Now, triggers influence a number of things. First they influence what’s top of mind. One way to think about our minds is like an ordered list. Some things are top of mind, or on the top of the list, and other things are less so.

Think about what’s top of mind for you at the moment. Probably the last couple sentences that I shared, about Aflac, for example. Maybe what you did right before this lecture. Or maybe what you’re doing after you listen to this. But an appointment that you have six weeks from now or your spouse’s birthday that might be five or six months away, that’s probably not so top of mind. Not so top of the list. Certain things are top of the list, others are less top of mind.

But interestingly, cues, or stimuli in the environment, what I’ll call triggers, can change that. If I say peanut butter and blank, for example, what comes to mind? Well if I said peanut butter and blank, you might think of jelly. Or if I said rum and blank, what might you think about? Well you might think of Coke. Now you probably weren’t thinking about the brand Coca-Cola a moment ago, but once I said the phrase rum and blank, Coke is now accessible or top of mind. It went from lower down the list to higher up on our mind.

Triggers can make things top of mind that might not be otherwise.

Interesting Results From Trigger-Based Studies

The idea here is that triggers can make things top of mind that might not be otherwise. A study we did around Halloween illustrates this concept nicely. We approached people who were about to enter a local supermarket and we asked them do a quick thinking study. Just think whatever you can think of, top of mind, and ask them to list six brands of soda and eight types of candy or chocolate. There were no right or wrong answers. Anything was fine. Just whatever came to mind.

Learn more: Decision Making—Moving to a Different Perspective

For soda, for example, people listed things like Coke or maybe Pepsi. Maybe Sprite or root beer. For candy people listed things like Snickers or Baby Ruth. Importantly, though, there were two conditions. Half the people were approached on the day before Halloween. Imagine walking up to your local grocery store on the day before Halloween and filling out this survey about what types of soda you’re thinking about or what types of chocolate come to mind. The other half the people were given that exact same survey, but they were approached a week later, a week after Halloween. And we picked that in particular because we were wondering whether that difference in time might affect what was top of mind for people.

picture of a halloween basket filled with candy
Halloween is traditionally linked to the color orange

Around Halloween, for example, there are lots of orange things in the environment. Orange pumpkins, orange displays in the store, orange cards you get in the mail. And we wondered whether all that orange right before Halloween might make orange products top of mind.

That’s exactly what we found. When we crunch the data, we notice that orange products, like orange soda or Reese’s pieces candy, were more likely to be listed, more likely to appear on people’s list, the day before Halloween compared to a week after. For example, Reese’s pieces was listed only by about 30 percent of people the week after Halloween, but that jumped to around 54 percent the day before Halloween.

The color orange is much more prevalent in that surrounding environment right before Halloween. Again, lots of pumpkins, lots of orange displays. But as soon as the holiday ends a week later, much of those orange stimuli disappear.

Many more people were thinking about that product, and the reason is triggers.

The color orange is much more prevalent in that surrounding environment right before Halloween. Again, lots of pumpkins, lots of orange displays. But as soon as the holiday ends a week later, much of those orange stimuli disappear. So right before the holiday there are many more triggers or cues to remind people to think of orange things. You might even be more like to think about Tide around Halloween. It’s not because you need more detergent, but it’s just because all that orange stuff reminds you of the brand, making it more top of mind.

Music played while you are shopping for groceries can affect your consumption patterns.

Influencing the Purchases You Make

We’ve already talked about how triggers change what we think about. Next let’s talk about how triggers influence choice and sales. Know, for example, the Muzak you’re used to hearing while you shop for groceries? Well researchers subtly replaced it with music from different countries. In some days, people came into the store and the store was playing French music, music you might think of when you go to France. On other days, they played German music, what you more might think of as a polka, maybe, or other music you might expect to hear around Oktoberfest.

They manipulated the music that people heard and they measured what people bought. They were wondering how the type of music that people were listening to might change what they purchased. Now again, should it? Well you might say no. The wine you like is the same. The products you like are the same. The only difference is the music that happens to be playing in the store. Why should that matter?

When scientists looked at the data, they found that the music being played impacted the wine people bought. When French music was playing, well, more customers bought French wine. And when German music was playing, more customers bought German wine.

But when scientists looked at the data, they found that the music being played impacted the wine people bought. When French music was playing, well, more customers bought French wine. And when German music was playing, more customers bought German wine. Same thing, right? The music is different, so it changes what we end up preferring. Might not change whether we like French wine or German wine, but it changes what we choose because it makes those products or ideas more top of mind. Makes us more likely to reach for a varietal French wine, maybe a nice chardonnay, rather than a bottle of German wine, may be a nice Riesling.

Statistically, more girls named April are born in the month of April than any other month.

Was Your Name Influenced by an Environmental Trigger?

The same thing happens with names. Take, for example, the name April. Well more than a third of children born with the name April are born in guess which month? Well, April. Now, why is this happening? It’s all about the stimulus in the environment spilling over to impact choice.

Children could be named April in any time of year. But in April, people are more likely to think of that word, and as a result are more likely to give their kids the name. Similar with the wine. By triggering consumers to think of different countries, the music spilled over and affected purchase. The music made ideas related to those countries more accessible and those accessible idea—again, top of mind—spilled over to affect behavior.

Learn more: The Impact of Triggers on Consumer Choice

More Serious Implications

At this point you might be thinking, OK, cute. I mean, triggers maybe impact what names people get or whether they pick a certain wine in the store. But could it really impact more consequential choices? Things that really matter? Like a really important domain? Well, how about how people vote?

Think about it for a moment. Where did you cast your ballot in the last election? Well, most people will answer this question with the name of their city or state. Durham, North Carolina. New York City, New York. Scranton. That’s where I voted. If asked to clarify, they might add, well I voted near my office. Or across from the supermarket. A few miles away from my home. Few people will be more specific. And after all, why should they be?

Although geography clearly matters in voting—the East Coast, for example, tends to vote a little more Democratic while the South tends to skew a little Republican—few people would think that the exact venue where they voted matters. Again, why would it matter? You just have your ballot and you drop it off at a particular place, right?

picture of five voting booths with curtains drawn and people voting
Where you vote can affect how you vote.

But think for a moment. Be more specific. What type of place did you vote in for the last election? Was it a church? Was it a school? Was it a firehouse? Most people in the U.S. are assigned to vote at a particular polling location.

There’s your typically public buildings, like a fire house, a courthouse, or a school, but can also be things like churches, private office buildings, or other venues. If you talk to political scientists, they’ll assume that voting is based on rational and stable preferences. Why do people vote? Well, they possess core beliefs and they weigh the costs and the benefits when deciding how to vote.

If we’re concerned about health care, for example, we support initiatives to make it more affordable and available to a greater number of people. In this calculating, more cognitive model of voting behavior, the particular kind of building people happen to cast their ballot in shouldn’t impact behavior. Again, it makes sense. If you’re assigned to vote at a school versus a church, why would you vote differently? You’re still the same person. You still have the costs and benefits that you might have otherwise. Don’t you just drop off your opinion wherever you happen to vote? But when we think about triggers, when we think about that idea about cues in the environment and how they make different things accessible, triggers suggest that it just might.

blurry image of a church
Churches are filled with religious imagery, which might remind people of the church doctrine.

Could where we vote actually affect how we vote? Because different locations contain different triggers. Churches are filled with religious imagery, which might remind people of the church doctrine. Schools are filled with things like lockers and desks and chalkboards, and those things might remind people of children or their own early educational experience.

Testing Effects of Triggers on Voters

And once these thoughts are triggered, they might change behavior just like we talked about already. Voting in a church, for example, might lead people to think more negatively about abortion or issues like gay marriage. Voting in a school might lead people to support education funding based on the stimuli in their environment.

Well to test this idea, my colleagues and I acquired data from each polling location in Arizona’s 2000 general election. We used the name and address of each polling location to determine whether it was a church or a school or some other type of building. We looked at the numbers and about 40 percent of people were assigned to vote in churches, 26 percent in schools, 10 percent in community centers, and the rest in a mix of apartment buildings, golf courses, and even RV parks. Then we examined whether people voted differently at these different types of polling locations.

Over 10,000 more people voted in favor of the school funding initiative when the polling place was a school. Polling location dramatically impacting voting behavior.

We focused in particular on a ballot initiative which proposed raising the sales tax from 5 percent to 5.6 percent to support public schools. This initiative had been hotly debated with good arguments on both sides. Most people support education funding, so they want to go that way. But few people enjoy paying more taxes, so it’s kind of a tough decision. Now if where people voted didn’t matter, then the percent supporting the initiative should be the same at schools and at other types of polling locations. But it wasn’t. Over 10,000 more people voted in favor of the school funding initiative when the polling place was a school. Polling location dramatically impacting voting behavior. At the end of the day, the initiative passed.

Learn more: The Basics of Consumer Psychology

Now this difference persisted even after we controlled for a host of factors that you might think impact voting: regional differences and political preferences and demographics. We even compared two similar groups of people to double-check our findings. People who live near schools and were assigned to vote at one versus people who live near schools but were assigned to vote at a different type of polling location. Maybe like a firehouse. Some of you may live near a school and you actually vote at a school; others may live near school but vote somewhere different.

We found that a significantly higher percentage of the people who voted in schools were in favor of increasing funding for schools, even if they were the same types of people or lived in the same neighborhoods. The fact that they were merely in a school when they cast their ballot triggered them to act more school friendly.

When we think about this, a 10,000-vote difference in a state wide election might not seem like a big deal, but it was more than enough to shift a close election in the past. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, the difference between George Bush and Al Gore came down to less than 1,000 votes. If 1,000 votes is enough to shift an election, 10,000 certainly could. Triggers matter. These have an important impact when we think about how we shape the electorate. Why are certain polling locations churches, for example?

Should people be allowed to vote in churches? You might say no, given these effects I’ve shown you, but it’s difficult. Polling locations need to be large. They need to have room for a lot of parking, and they need to be handicap accessible. It’s difficult to find locations that are all those things and are open during the day. And further, you wouldn’t necessarily expect that triggers affect all voting decisions. Who we vote for president, for example, is a complicated choice that depends on many different dimensions. Something that’s simpler, like an initiative about school funding or about religious ideas like gay marriage or abortion, may be easier or more likely to be swayed by where people voted. But it’s an interesting, important finding that suggests that triggers have a big important impact on behavior.

Triggers and cues in the environment can make products and ideas more top of mind, which makes people more likely to choose them. Keep this in mind next time you are shopping, (or voting!) and you just might pick up on the many factors affecting your choices.

From the lecture series How Ideas Spread
Taught by Professor Jonah Berger, University of Pennsylvania


  1. Very thought provoking – I’ll be considering this next time I’m on line at Starbucks! Thanks for the interesting article.

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