The Reptilian Brain:
The Key to Understanding Shopper Behavior

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Price and brand messages are not as important to shopper behavior as we think they are. Science shows that when shopping, we don’t make rational decisions, we just think we do.

In order to understand this concept, it starts with an understanding of our brains. The first outer part of our brain is called the Neocortex and is responsible for rational thinking like coming up with complex mathematical equations. The second middle part is the Limbic area which controls our emotions and is associated with feelings like love and intimacy. The third part is the inner Amygdala area which is the reptilian brain. This is the oldest part of the brain and is responsible for 90% of our decision making. It controls our fight or flight response and lives by its own rules. It also operates super fast and unconsciously so that we don’t even know it’s working.

The brain requires a lot of our daily energy. It makes up 2% of our body mass but burns 20% of our energy. Because it’s optimized to save energy, it’s not going to waste time on things it doesn’t think are important. This is why it’s important to capture the attention of the reptilian brain.

So how do we tap into the reptilian brain to understand shoppers better?

  1. The reptilian brain remembers mostly what happens first and last. In other words, the beginning and ending of a shopping experience leave a lasting impression on the customer. If a customer has a bad experience right as they are getting ready to leave, this will form their overall impression of the experience. Knowing this, retailers need to pay attention to the customer experience when the customer enters and leaves. It could be as simple as making sure shopping baskets and buggies are easily accessible and providing a fast check out line for purchases of 12 items or less.
  2. Coke vs. Pepsi, PC vs. Mac, Burger King vs. McDonald’s. Contrast is another way retailers can appeal to the reptilian brain. It helps speed up the decision-making process. This is especially true of high value purchase decisions where there is a lot of unconscious buying pain. One way to make the decision easier for the customer is to provide a good value comparison in order to justify their final decision. Instead of trying to explain why they should buy your product, show the opportunity cost of not buying.
  3. Since the beginning of time we have developed a survivalist mentality that is very self-centered. The reptilian brain only understands messages in absolute terms so any communication should focus on the customer, not on the brand. What is the shopper benefit? When shopping, the reptilian brain is not open to brand messages. Shoppers want to know what your product will do for them.
  4. Try to communicate your message visually to immediately grab attention. The reptilian brain cannot read or do anything too complex so you’ve got to show it what you are trying to say. In our research, we have found that impactful shapes and large imagery appeals to the reptilian brain.

Although the whole brain is involved in the consumer decision process, the reptilian brain is the driving force. If you want to understand your shopper better, keep the reptilian brain in mind and it will have a lasting effect on your bottom line.

Anne Stephenson
Partner, Explorer Research

anne stephenson

Consumer Decision Making