The Psychology of Buying and Five Ways Your Salesman Can Be Tricking You

Updated on May 15, 2020
Chris Martine profile image

Chris is a young professional who enjoys discovering and exploring the tenets of human psychology.


Do you find yourself buying something without meaning to?

Well, the salesman probably used a psychological technique on you—just to make you buy or pay for more than a product's worth.

Do you want to be smarter when buying or selling? After reading this, you'll know about the psychology of buying and recognize when a salesman or marketing ad is trying to psych you. Then, you'll learn how to protect yourself from the tricks of their trade. If ever you wanted to, that is.

1. The Anchoring Effect

In 2003, researchers Dan Ariely, George Lowenstein, and Drazen Prelec proved that something as simple as a social security number can be used as an anchor point.

The researchers asked their respondents whether they're willing to buy products such as cordless trackpads, keyboards, and a box of Belgian chocolates at a price equivalent to the last two digits of their social security number.

Further, what's the maximum amount they're willing to pay for each item?

The result?

Participants possessing security number with low last digits also gave low prices. Participants who have high last digits also gave high prices. (Ariely, Lowenstein, Pralec, 2003).

Buying a car or high-end gadget is another situation where you see the anchoring effect at play.

The dealer will probably ask you first how much are you willing to dole out. If you said that you want a car that costs no more than $20,000, the dealer will start showing you more expensive models, say $30,000 or higher. The dealer just gave you an anchor.

Unconsciously, you'll be using the $30,000 price as a benchmark when the dealer finally shows you other cars in the lower range.

Say, the dealer offered a car for $23,000. It's still higher than your original buying price. But because you've already used a value of $30,000 as a high anchor, you'll end up thinking that it's a pretty good deal.

Congratulations, the anchoring manipulation just took effect.

2. The Door-In-the-Face Technique

A 1975 experiment showed that asking an unreasonable request at the very start can turn off most people. But the moment you asked a more reasonable request, people will be more willing to comply.

Robert Cialdini and his colleagues asked a group of participants whether they would agree to mentor prisoners for a minimum of two years at two hours per week and with no pay.

Most of them said no. Only two persons (3% of the group) took up the challenge.

"If you will not do the first request, would you rather accompany children on a zoo trip?" came the next question. Voila, more people agreed to do this second, more reasonable request even though it will also cost time and effort. (Cialdini,1975).

How does the smart salesman use the technique on you?

For example, if you just spotted a pretty shirt in a flea market and the vendor gave you the price of $500, will you buy it?

If you think that the shirt is probably worth $50 only and $500 is too much even for a shirt, you will slam the door against the vendor's face. The moment you walk away the vendor will shout!

"Brother, for today I'm giving it to you for only 100 dollars!"

Catch! You hurriedly return and purchase the shirt because $100 is more reasonable, right?


3. The Foot-in-the-Door Technique

If there's a door- in-the-face, there's also its fraternal twin—the foot-in-the-door technique.

A Stanford University study proved the effectiveness of asking a small favor first. Then, follow it with a larger request.

Here's the small request. Researchers asked the first group of women to answer questions about the use of soap products. Then, the researchers asked the women if they will allow men to enter their homes and take inventory of their own products.

To the second group of women, the researchers delivered only the larger request.

Guess what the researchers found?

Jonathan Freedman and Scott Frazer discovered this. The first group was more likely to agree to the larger request compared to the second group. (Freedman and Fraser, 1966)

Marketers use the foot-in-the-door technique with you in many, subtler ways. For example, do they ask you to provide your email address while visiting a website?

If you agreed to that initial, simple favor, they just got in with their feet at your door. Later on, they will ask you to purchase a product or service. If their sales letters were really good, you'll be compelled to buy them.

That's the foot-in-the-door technique at work.

4. The Supernormal Stimuli Technique

Food sellers, in particular, find this technique helpful.

Have you ever wandered inside a bakeshop, noticed an overly large cookie, and proceeded to buy it? The cookie pulled you. Or rather, your stimuli reacted to the cookie's beyond-normal size.

It's exactly this pull that psychologist Deirdre Barrett discussed in her book Supernormal Stimuli. She found out that people tend to get pulled toward unusual objects such as an overly large cookie or an animal with abnormally big eyes.

Her book corroborates a previous study in 1951 by Nikolaas Tinbergen.

Tinbergen discovered that mother birds tend to focus the attention on the largest of their eggs. These wise avians like to think that the largest egg will be the healthiest bird and will most likely survive. (Tinbergen, 1951).

Amazing, isn't it?

5. Building-Your-Curiosity Technique

Our brains love to be curious. Min Jeong Kang, along with other scientists, discovered that certain brain regions become active whenever they process high-curiosity questions (e.g. what book is the most shoplifted in the world?) (Kang, 2009).

These are the regions related to the brain's reward and memory centers:

  • caudate nucleus
  • bilateral prefrontal cortex
  • parahippocampal gyri
  • putamen
  • globus pallidus.

How does a marketer induce these brain sections to work?

The simplest way is to create curious, catchy titles on their websites to make you click and discover what's inside. And because you clicked, they've just captured a hint of your interests. They will prepare a trail for you and they'll have you clicking similar sites and content soon enough.

These five psychological techniques to make you buy may or may not work with people at all times. The next salesman could be using any of these in one of your shopping sprees. If you have no clue at all, it's pretty easy to get trapped in unwanted consumerism.

So, how do you protect yourself next time?

  • Before heading into a store or buying anything online, do your research.
  • Decide if you really need it or if purchasing the product would give added value to your life.
  • Do not rely solely on the price for decision-making. Factor in the qualitative aspects of the product as well.
  • Be wary of random streetwalkers who pose to ask a question and later on, offer you to buy a product or avail a service.
  • Resist the urge to click on anything simply because you were curious.
  • Learn to identify the real deal from the bogus.

If you're a salesman yourself, employing the above techniques wouldn't hurt. Just make sure you also come prepared with effective counterarguments just in case your buyer happens to know the tricks of your trade.

Buy and sell wisely!


Ariely, D, Loewenstein, G., Pralec, D. (2003). “Coherent Arbitrariness”: Stable Demand Curves Without Stable Preferences. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 118, Issue 1, February 2003. Retrieved from

Cialdini, R.B., Vincent, J.E., Lewis, S.K., Catalan,J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B.L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 206–215. Retrieved from

Tinbergen, N. (1951). The Study of Instinct. Retrieved from

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C.. (1966). Compliance Without Pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique, JPSP, 1966, 4, 196-202. Retrieved from

Kang, Min Jeong, (2009.) The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory. Retrieved from

Britt, M. A. (2017). Psych Experiments. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Chris Martine


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