Psychological Warfare III - No Pain Equals Gain

The human mind is indeed a strange place but it is a landscape that must be thoroughly traversed if you wish to make the most of psychological warfare to generate sales. For example, you are about to learn that giving customers the ‘power of choice’ is one of the worst things you can do for your bank balance. You will also discover that humans have an almost pathological fear of loss to the extent where keeping hold of what we have far outweighs potential gains.

Less is More

Don’t confuse this with the typical notion that less sales copy is better (it isn’t for reasons briefly outlined here). In this instance, I am referring to the fact that ‘analysis paralysis’ is the result when consumers are given too many options. This was displayed in a 2001 study carried out by Dr. Mark Lepper, Stanford’s Psychology Department’s chairman, and Dr. Sheena Iyengar, an assistant professor at Columbia’s business school.

To summarise this study briefly:

  • A ‘tasting booth’ was set up in Draeger’s Supermarket in Menlo Park, California.
  • The booth was set up to display 6 types of jam and 24 types of jam at alternative periods.
  • 60% of customers that passed by the larger selection stopped for a taste compared to 40% of customers who stopped at the more limited selection.
  • Yet only 3% of customers BOUGHT jam from the wide selection while 30% of customers purchased jam from the limited selection!

In other words, too much selection is a BAD thing. If you are selling 40 different items, you should group them into a handful of categories. When it comes to website design, include very specific pages. You don’t need to show customers everything you have; instead, funnel them to the right places and enjoy better sales.

Loss is more powerful than Gain

Human beings are programmed to value existing possessions more than the pursuit of new ones. We are more concerned with keeping what we have than expanding on it. The technical term is ‘loss aversion’ and was first demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their often cited 1984 work Choices, Values and Frames which can be seen in full here1. In simple terms, humans derive a greater level of dissatisfaction from losing £50 than satisfaction from gaining £50.

The fact is that humans are capable of being extremely illogical and this is why there are so many ‘emotional’ purchases. When it comes to enhancing the conversion rate of your business online, your goal should be to make prospects feeling like they are missing out on a great deal rather than espousing the benefits. You must make readers believe that by NOT purchasing your product/service, they are losing out on something great and human beings HATE being left out of the loop; it makes us feel like suckers!

For example, phrases like Stop wasting time and money will work wonders because your readers will feel as if they risk losing something by not making the purchase. It is also a great idea to use the concept of ‘scarcity’. Limit the amount of time left to avail of the offer or make it look like you’re about to sell out and will NEVER be offering such a great deal again.

However, you must also include customer benefits for the complete sales copy package. Appealing to our sense of loss aversion will get you far but adding in extra benefits will completely seal the deal.

Understanding the Purchasing ‘Pain Threshold’

According to neuroscientists, consumers actually experience a kind of ‘pain’ when they make a purchase and will stop spending money once this pain gets to a certain level. Consumers have been placed into three categories based on these findings:

  • Unconflicted – 61% of consumers are in this category and know when to stop.
  • Spendthrifts – 15% of people will spend more than their original budget before stopping.
  • Tightwads – 24% of customers will stop shopping before hitting their budgetary limit.

Clearly, the ‘tightwad’ section is the hardest to convert but since it makes up 25% of your potential customer base, you need to make an effort. Besides, if you can convert members of this group, getting cash off the other groups will be easy in comparison. Here are 3 essential copywriting strategies to improve your conversion rate based on a customer’s pain threshold:

1 – Reframing

In simple terms, this is the process of altering your target audience’s perception of your produce by changing the context in which they view it. In my personal experience, I have found that skilled copywriters are able to transform a flaw or shortcoming into an advantage. Classic examples of reframing habitually occur when a company tries to sell an expensive product. For example, trying to sell tickets to a workshop that cost $295 will be difficult but you could reframe as follows:

How much is success in life worth to you? $50,000, $25,000, $10,000?

*This is how much other workshops cost and if I charged you my normal fee of $400 an hour, you would pay $3,200 for this 8 hour session on February 8th. *

*But it doesn’t even cost $3,200, or $2,000 or even $500! *

*You can change the way your business operates forever for just $295! *

Your company will earn more per hour by the time you have implemented all the strategies you learn!

Suddenly, $295 looks like an absolute bargain since other speakers charge 50 times more and you normally charge over 10 times the price. A large expense now looks like a frivolous one and more importantly, customers would be doing their company a disservice to ignore it.

A simpler way to reframe the cost of anything is to break it into smaller increments. Instead of mentioning a product that costs over $600, you can say it is *only $49.99 a month! *You’ll find that $49.99 sounds better than $50 and $9.99 sounds much better than $10 and so on.

2 – Introducing the Value Bundle

Researchers have found that lower spenders prefer to buy several items at once instead of multiple small purchases. This makes sense because one purchase offers a small pain point while several purchases equal many pain points.

3 – Adding Qualifiers

It is also worth making slight changes to the sales copy. A Carnegie Mellon University experiment found that using ‘A small $5 fee’ led to 20% more sales than ‘A $5 fee’. By adding in a qualifier that explains the miniscule investment needed, buyers became more likely to make the purchase. 
In the final part of this series, we look at how having enemies can actually boost sales, why people prefer paying to getting things for free and the importance of patience in the selling process.

Have you experimented with different kinds of copy? If so, what were the results?


  1. Choices, Values and Frames, Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1984). American Psychologist, volume 39, number 4, pp. 341–350