Behavioral Economics: How “Triggers” Affect Your Decisions

From the Lecture Series: How Ideas Spread

By Jonah Berger, Ph.D.University of Pennsylvania

In the world of behavioral economics, 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?

 Concept for studying triggers in behavioral economics
(Image: By LeoWolfert/Shutterstock)

Triggers and cues shape everything from what people think about—or what’s top of mind—to what we like, buy, and even how we vote. Voting in a church, for example, versus a school, might change how you cast your ballot; even hearing French music at the grocery store makes people more likely to buy French wine.

What Are Triggers?

A trigger is any stimulus in the environment that makes us think about a related concept, idea, sight, sound, or smell that makes us think of something. If you see a vitamin container on your kitchen counter, that may remind you it’s time to take your vitamins, or that you’ve forgotten to for a couple days. Or, if you smell some freshly baked cookies, it may remind you of the ginger snap cookies your mom used to bake.

This is a transcript from the video series How Ideas Spread. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In each of these cases, a sight like the vitamin container, 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 occurs is based on the work of cognitive psychology, about exposure, perception, and memory. If two things are connected in our mind, seeing one of those things can activate the other.

Learn more about the science of how ideas spread

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

Branded Triggers Utilize Association

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 they can be based on new ones.

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. (Image: NASA/JPL/Public domain)

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

The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. Yet sales had gone up. What had happened? Mars bars are named after the company’s founder Franklin Mars, not the red planet. All the attention to the planet Mars seemed to bolster sales of the Mars candy bar. Customers apparently responded to news about the planet Mars by purchasing more Mars bars.

In the case of Mars bars, the planet is already associated with Mars the bar because they share a common name. The candy company didn’t have to do any marketing to link the two together. They’re already connected in your mind by association.

picture of a white duck that is used to represent behavioral economics
Does this duck remind you of an insurance company? (Image: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock)

In other instances new associations may form. Seeing a white duck might remind you of the insurance company Aflac. 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 connected the two in people’s minds. Seeing similar ducks or hearing a duck’s quack, even if neither has anything to do with Aflac, might remind people of the company. Companies spend lots of money creating these links because they want to remind you of their products or brands.

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 others are less so.

Learn more about the phenomenon of triggers

What’s top of mind for you at the moment? Probably the last couple sentences about Aflac, what you did right before reading this, or maybe what you’re doing after you read this. But an appointment you have six weeks from now or your spouse’s birthday five or six months away, is probably not top of mind. Certain things are top of the list, others are less top of mind.

But interestingly, cues, or stimuli in the environment, “triggers”, can change that. If I say rum and blank, what might you think about? You might think of Coke. You probably weren’t thinking about the brand Coca-Cola a moment ago, but once you read 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.

Influencing the Purchases You Make

Music played while you are shopping for groceries can affect your consumption patterns. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Triggers change what we think about. What’s more, is their influence on choice and sales. For example, what about the Muzak you hear while you shop for groceries? In one experiment, researchers subtly replaced it with music from different countries. On some days people came into the store and the store was playing music you might think of when you go to France. On other days they played German music, polka, or other music you might expect to hear around Oktoberfest.

The researchers wondered how the type of music people listened to might change what they bought, so they manipulated the music people heard and measured those purchases. You may say it shouldn’t affect choice. 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 French music was playing, 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, more customers bought French wine, and when German music was playing, more customers bought German wine. Different music influenced what customers preferred. It might not change whether we like French wine or German wine, but it impacts what we choose because those products or ideas become more top of mind.

More Serious Implications

Triggers may impact the type of wine people pick in a store. Could it really impact more consequential choices, like how people vote?

Think about where you cast your ballot in the last election. Most people will answer this question with the name of their city or state, New York City, New York. I voted in Scranton, Pennsylvania. If asked to clarify, they may add they voted near their office, or across from the supermarket, or a few miles away from home. Few people will be more specific.

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 the exact venue where they voted matters. 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. (Image: Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock)

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

There’s your typical public buildings, like a fire house, courthouse, or school, but locations can also be churches, private office buildings, or other venues. If you talk to political scientists, they’ll assume voting is based on rational and stable preferences. People vote because they possess core beliefs and weigh the costs and the benefits when deciding how to cast their 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 kind of building people happen to cast their ballot in shouldn’t impact behavior. 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 with the costs and benefits that you might have otherwise. Triggers suggest that the idea of cues in the environment may make different things accessible.

The cathedral in Monreale, Palermo
Churches are filled with religious imagery, which may remind people of the church’s doctrine. (Image: Jan Ohrstrom/Shutterstock)

Where we vote could actually affect how we vote, because different locations contain different triggers. Churches are filled with religious imagery, which may remind people of the church’s doctrine. Schools are filled with things like lockers, desks, and chalkboards, and those things could remind people of children or their own early educational experience.

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Testing Effects of Triggers on Voters

Voting in a church might lead people to think more negatively about abortion or issues like gay marriage, whereas voting in a school might lead people to support education funding based on the stimuli in their environment.

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. We then 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.

We focused on a particular 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, but few people enjoy paying more taxes, so it’s a tough decision. 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 impacted voting behavior. At the end of the day, the initiative passed.

Now this difference persisted even after we controlled for a host of factors that you might think impact voting: regional differences 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, like a firehouse.

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 may 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 may say no, given these effects. But polling locations need to be large, they need to have room for a lot of parking, be handicap accessible, and are open during the day. It’s difficult to find locations that are all those things. Triggers don’t 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, is more likely to be swayed by where people voted. But it’s an interesting, important finding that suggests 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.

Common Questions About Triggers and Behavioral Economics

Q: Why is behavioral economics important?

Behavioral economics is important for marketers because it helps them to better understand why people make the purchasing decisions that they do, and it’s helpful for consumers to understand their triggers in order to cut down on impulse purchases.

Q: What is a buying trigger?

A buying trigger is any event which causes a consumer to purchase a product.

Q: How is consumer behavior best defined?

Consumer behavior refers to the underlying motivations behind consumer decisions: purchasing goods, voting, etc. The motivations can be obvious or they can occur on an unconscious level.

Q: What psychological triggers influence consumers?

Some psychological triggers that influence customers include reciprocity, like a salesperson who goes out of their way to help you, you feel almost as if you owe them a purchase; scarcity; sales—even if the item is still priced at market value, it gives people the impression that they’re saving money; and a desire to identify with the face behind the brand, which is why companies often use attractive models or celebrities in their advertising.

This article was updated on August 29, 2019

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