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The one cognitive bias all customers share that determines if they buy or not

The one cognitive bias all customers share that determines if they buy or not

Smart entrepreneurs spend a lot of time thinking about product market fit. Turning strangers into customers is pretty much everything, after all.

That’s why entrepreneurs put a ton of energy into crafting the marketing narratives that will persuade people to buy their thing. 

They study these arts and sciences to do so: 

  • Product Design.
  • Marketing. 
  • Sales.
  • Persuasion. 

Founders are wise to learn about—and ruminate upon—this stuff. If you want to win in business you need to be obsessed with getting these things right. 

There’s one other thing entrepreneurs need to consider though. There’s one thing missing from that list. And most entrepreneurs never think about it at all. But when they do, it revolutionizes their product’s ability to sell itself. Like magic.   

Do you ever wonder why some products seem to magnetically attract customers, fly off the shelves and generate fanatic word-of-mouth? 

And vice versa: Have you ever wondered what it is about an otherwise great product idea that just happens to weirdly not sell very well? 

When a useful, problem-solving product always needs to be aggressively pitched, never “sells itself” but instead requires aggressive tricks and hacks to convince people to buy… it’s missing this final piece of the product-market-fit equation:  

The target market’s psychological bias for action. 

Here’s how bias-for-action works: 

If you’re a scrappy founder who has an idea for a clever solution to an “itch” you’ve felt… then of course you’re going to go out and do your research. 

Before you build, you need to discover that other people share your itch. 

But merely finding others who’ve felt the itch… is not enough. 

Your target market needs to—in addition to feeling the problem—also have a strong psychological bias for taking action to solve the problem. 

That sentence might read like I’m saying the same thing two different ways. I’m not. The distinction is subtle. And it changes everything. 

Behavioral inertia is a thing. 

It’s a big thing.

Behavioral inertia basically means that—for the most part—people do what they’ve always done. 

Human beings are creatures of habit. 

We like new stuff. And we like innovation. But we are seldom powerfully motivated to do radically unusual things in our lives. Most people don’t like to try radically different solutions to their problems. 

We like the familiar. 

This is why American adults eat about 1000x more mac and cheese than they do sea urchin. And yet, most people really enjoy trying new foods. 

If you ask a person if they like to try exotic new flavors, they’ll say yes. But if you watch what they eat in any given week, it’ll almost entirely be the same old stuff. 

This is because our psychological bias for action—when it comes to trying new foods—is pretty low. 

What shall we have for dinner tonight? 

Want to try that Bhutanese place? 

… Nah, let’s just get pizza! 

Behavioral inertia basically means that even when we know we should change—or try something new—we just keep on doing what we’ve always done. Because it’s easier. 

Behavioral inertia is between you and your customer purchasing your thing. And it has to be overcome. 

It’s not enough that you’re certain that your target market has the problem. 

It’s not enough that you have a solution that works to solve it, either.  

The question that matters is:

How motivated are they to take action to solve the problem? 

If they have the itch, how driven are they to do the work of scratching?

Because scratching an itch is work. Even when you have a really cool, shiny new scratcher.  

No matter how easy your solution is, it requires your customer to overcome behavioral inertia in order to use it. 

It requires them to find it, purchase it and try it out. 

Trying anything new takes effort. It’s inconvenient. It’s often easier to procrastinate. To keep feeling the itch and not do anything about it.

I see this all the time in software startups. Well meaning product designers create elegant solutions to problems that millions of people have, but they forget about the customer’s lack of bias for action. 

I recently heard a pitch for a startup that made live relationship therapy available instantly, via an app. A classic “Uber-but-for-couples-counsellors” strategy. 

The idea is if you just made it really easy for people to hit a button and solve a problem they very clearly suffered from—in this case fighting with one’s spouse—then they’ll use it like crazy. 

Itch = scratched. Pain = resolved. 

Customers will throw money at the solution, right? And then they’ll tell all their friends. 

The problem is, most people’s psychological bias for action when they’re fighting with their significant other… is pretty low. 

And asking people to add a whole new mental “category” for spending money into their lives—that of buying one-click relationship coaching—requires the customer to overcome enormous behavioral inertia.

It’s so much easier to do nothing, just like you always have. 

This is why inventing brand new solutions to problems that have never before been solved… is actually really, really difficult. 

It’s difficult to sell, because of inertia. 

Cryotherapy is a thing. You might have heard of it. 

If you haven’t, here’s the gist: You can go blast yourself with freezing cold liquid nitrogen and it makes you feel great (afterward) and does good things for your health. 

Cryotherapy isn’t sweeping the world by storm though, because most people’s bias for action—when it comes to seeking out liquid nitrogen jet baths—is unsurprisingly low. 

Most consumers don’t have a mental allocation of their paycheck that goes to freezing themselves. 

If you’re a cryotherapy entrepreneur, you might be able to get people to try it once. But sustainable use (that drives a high customer Life Time Value) is going to be tough.


Because of the behavioral inertia where everyone’s life is totally okay if they almost never freeze themselves. 

Products that skyrocket to success do so because they appeal to people with a strong bias for action. They solve a problem where the customer is also deeply motivated to go out and spend their money. 

They’re in the market for a solution. They’re hunting. 

Car dealerships exist because it is worth it for them to exist. 

It’s worth it to be right there, right on the busiest street in town… so that when people need a car, they know exactly where to find you. 

“Early adopters” are people who have a strong bias for action that is caused by wanting to be first. They’re people who take so much pride in being at the front of the new wave of tech (or whatever) that they spend a ton of time and energy educating themselves, seeking out the latest and greatest. 

For example, they know exactly how much RAM the latest smartphone has. 

And it’s the motivation to find stuff like that out that also gives them a strong bias for action. 

Shut up and take my money 

Entrepreneurs who find themselves exasperated at potential customers who are hemming, hawing and hesitating, despite: 

  • Being perfectly in the target demographic
  • Suffering from precisely the problem the product was built to solve 
  • Being financially able to pay for the product 

… Are entrepreneurs who’ve failed to find customers with the psychological bias for action. 

If you want customers who: 

  1. Throw money at you. 
  2. Who tell all their friends. 
  3. And who happily justify your price to themselves… 

Then you need to build and design products for people who are actively hunting for solutions. 

You need to design your product for people who’ve already overcome their behavioral inertia and who are ready to try new stuff out. 

You’ll find these people at the front end of the product adoption bell curve. You’ll find them checking out your competitors. They’ll be talking online to other fanatics who are just like them. 

You see the problem with “Uber, but for coaching”?

Or “AirBNB for exotic sports cars”. 

Or for yet another productivity/to-do list/project-management app being advertised via Youtube pre-roll commercials? 

Or whatever. It doesn’t matter. 

All ideas of this kind will only appeal to a tiny segment of people who are already obsessed. 

They’re the people laying awake at night thinking to themselves “Why isn’t there a way I can borrow a rich person’s Ferrari’s when they’re not using it??!”. 

What these kinds of ideas will not do is convince the people who kinda would like to drive an exotic car… to do so. 

The activation energy is too high. 

You gotta sign up, you gotta pay money, then you gotta go drive it.

These slickly designed project management tools will never convince fundamentally disorganized people who run their lives via post-it notes… to get their shit together. 

The activation energy is enormous! 

The first thing you have to do, when you download that new productivity app is import a bunch of your data and get to work color coding your categories. 

(Unless of course, you’re smart enough to outsource your productivity planning to a pro!) 

With the sports car or the software… It’s easier to just stay home. 

Put on Netflix. 

Do what you always do, instead. 

The most important question any entrepreneur can ask themselves is: Who am I building this for? 

And, how motivated are they to go out and throw money, time and energy at solving this problem for themselves? 

If they’re doing so—if they’re already trying and it’s costing them money, time and energy—and if you have a better way… you’re going to win. They’re going to want to try your thing. 

I remember the first time I logged into Facebook. I was at an age where socializing—being “inside” the right circles—was pretty much the most important thing. I was already spending a ton of time and energy connecting. So the activation energy required to get set up on Facebook was worth it. It was so worth it that it felt like fun. 

As an entrepreneur, you never want to try to persuade people to try something totally new, that solves a problem they’ve been happily living with. Or tolerating. 

Find and build solutions for problems people are itching to lose, not just problems that merely itch. 

Get in the habit of asking yourself this one simple question:  

How strong is the target market’s psychological bias for action? 

You need to know. 


+ Add Comment
  1. Thank you for this! You ARE smart – very!

    In my case, I volunteer with a friend for an organization’s local chapter & we run a group where we give away all that we work to provide – meetings, samples, support, medical/professional information…and we like it that way! Even so, we’re starting to feel like fundraising is in our near future and we will soon test the waters. The article you just wrote helps me to approach it with a finer-tuned mind & I appreciate that insight! Plus, we have our own inertia because we’ve done things a certain way for a few years and this will be a behavioral change for my co-leader and me, not just the members of the group.

  2. Peter –

    Thank you!

    Major breakthrough. On point discovery.

    Can you imagine an award-winning podcast series on behavioral inertia… and how profitable and fulfilling it can/will be to overcome?

    “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

    Superb work, Peter.

    Tom Dioro

  3. Thank you, Peter! Your insights are spot-on and make the sales process more efficient by getting me to focus on the highest value potentials and not on trying to convert people who need to be convinced or cajoled. I needn’t waste my time or theirs.

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