A Brief Introduction To the Psychology of Copywriting

Home - Copywriting - A Brief Introduction To the Psychology of Copywriting

Many people believe that the single goal of the copywriter is to persuade somebody to buy something.  While at its most basic level, that is true, there is a lot more involved in the fine art of persuasion via copywriting.  In this article, we’ll explore some of basic tactics that some of the best copywriters have used to make their ads highly successful and how they work to influence people.

IMPLICIT EGOTISM means gravitating towards stimuli that is like ourselves.  When writing copy to go to a specific person, the best way to use this knowledge, is to use their name.  As humans, we experience implicit egotism, a natural tendency to be self-centered. We subconsciously gravitate toward stimuli that resemble ourselves.

A study by Carmody & Lewis found that certain regions of the brain were activated upon subjects hearing their own names. It provoked a feeling of positivity in the subjects.

To apply this knowledge to your copywriting, your readers will feel positive emotions when reading their own names in your emails, for example. But don’t just limit their name to the beginning of the email – be sure to use it a few times throughout the message as well.

When we remember that implicit egotism means people will gravitate towards stimuli that is like themselves, subconsciously this applies to other experiences beyond just their own names.

For example, MIRRORING is a concept in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) that suggests when you nonchalantly mimic another person’s body movements, mannerisms and speech patterns, they become more comfortable with you without knowing why.

To use this in copywriting, we strongly recommend you get to really understand your audience before you even lift your pen to start writing to them. (In Million Dollar Marketer, we even have an entire course dedicated to Research to teach this.) Learn where your prospects hang out on the internet. Read their posts and join their forums. Learn to think like they do and talk like they do.

Just remember, people like people that are like them. What better way to show your audience you can empathize with their situation than by talking their talk, using their language, or speaking the specific terms and phrases that they use? Show them how MUCH you are like them by doing these things and they’ll subconsciously trust you more easily.

SERIAL POSITIONING is the brain’s prioritization of the first and last pieces of information you read. Simply put, this means that when given a list and tested on it later, people will tend to remember only the first and last points.

To use serial positioning to your advantage, in your sales emails, be sure you have a P.S. at the end of each of your sales letters (as you’ll see the famous copywriters do.) For bullet points, make sure the first and last ones are the most important ones you’d like your readers to remember.

ILLUSORY TRUTH EFFECT is the subconscious idea that repetition is correlated with accuracy.

Dale Carnegie was famous for saying, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”

So, within your writing, don’t be afraid to repeat the statements you want your audience to believe and remember the most.

One of the more popular methods for doing this is by using social proof. You’ve seen ads where there are tons of testimonials, one right after the other?  They’re using this subconscious idea that repetition is correlated with accuracy.

JUSTIFICATION – USING THE WORD BECAUSE.  An interesting study called the Xerox Mindfulness Study done in 1978 illustrates the effect of using justification.  In summary, it suggests that giving any reason at all for a request is a much more effective strategy than giving no reason.

A great article from Socially Psyched summarizes this study as follows:

The most well-known of these experiments was their experiment #1 where two confederates (one male and one female actor working with the experimenters) approached a total of 120 adults about to make copies (each confederate approached about half of the subjects). The confederate asked one of three questions:

  1. Request only.  “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?”
  2. Placebic information.  “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
  3. Real information. “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

The difference in number of pages (5 or 20) was based on the approximate number of pages the subject had, which determined either the “small request” or “large request” conditions. For example, if the subject was about to make just a few copies, and the confederate asked to make 20 copies, this would be considered a “large request.”

If the subjects were processing the information (being mindful), it shouldn’t matter whether they made the request only or gave placebic (bogus) information (followed the request with “because I have to make copies”). Only when the confederate gave real additional information (“because I am in a rush”) should the results of the request be any different—assuming the subjects were being mindful.

The results were clear: when the request was small (jump ahead to make fewer copies than the subject), the subjects defaulted to a script of “favor is asked > reason is given > comply” and 93% of the subjects complied when the bogus response was given versus only 60% when no response was given. When the request was large (jump ahead to make more copies than the subject) the subject was mindful of the information, and it didn’t matter if they gave a bogus reason, the response was the same (24%).”

CONSIDER USING RHYMES:  2000 study conducted by McGlone and Tofighbakhsh at Lafayette College noted that poetic form in writing can significantly impact people’s perceptions of accuracy—specifically in relation to human behavior. Rhymes were rated as more likeable, more original, easier to remember, more suitable for campaigns, more persuasive and more trustworthy.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is.”

If you are interested in using rhyming in your advertising, here is a great article that discusses the possible ways to use rhymes along with points to watch out for.

ADD TEXTURAL METAPHORS TO YOUR COPY. Krish Sathian at Emory University has conducted multiple studies on how textural adjectives activate the brain differently. The texture words used were predominantly related to touch, and many metaphors were likely more easily interpreted by reference to touch than vision.

For example, the phrases ‘a rough day’ or ‘a slimy person’ have negative connotations because they refer to attributes that may be particularly unpleasant to touch.  These textural metaphors activated specific regions in the brain as noted on MRI, whereas literal terms for these same metaphors did not.

The research suggests that there may be some link between increased brain activity and better memory/recall. Perhaps this is why many copywriters use colorful language and textural adjectives in their writing. If nothing else, it gives the reader a sort of pleasant surprise when they may otherwise be expecting a bland term.

BE SUBTLE WITH YOUR PERSUASION TACTICS.   An older study by Jack Brehm in 1956 suggests that people will become more resistant to your message if they believe you’re attempting to persuade them.

One of the methods of adding a sort of stealth to your writing consists of reminding people THEY REMIND THEM THEY HAVE A CHOICE. Reminding people that they are free and have the freedom to choose can go a long way towards persuading others.

Christopher Carpenter at Western Illinois University, conducted a worldwide meta-analysis  which examined 42 different persuasion studies with more than 22,000 participants in a non-sales context.  The findings showed that by simply reminding people that they have the freedom to choose, success rates for compliance were at least DOUBLED, sometimes QUADRUPLED.

To use this technique in your copy, use phrases like:

“It’s up to you.”

“It’s your choice.”

“It’s your decision.”

By phrasing your readers’ ability to choose in this way, you’ll be reducing the psychological resistance, and your readers will feel a stronger desire to complete what you are asking them to do.

SHOW YOUR DRAWBACKS ALONG WITH YOUR BENEFITS.  Another method of use stealth in your persuasion tactics, is to include both sides of the equation in your arguments.  In other words, go ahead and show the drawbacks in your sales copy.

While this may seem counterproductive, studies show that two-sided arguments, that is – arguments that give benefits and drawbacks, are more persuasive than simply listing all the benefits alone.  (Rucker, Petty, & Brinol, 2008).

EMBODIED COGNITION.   A third method of using stealth in your persuasion tactics is to include some alternates that the reader can do besides your suggested behavior. This takes advantage of embodied cognition principles in your writing. Embodied cognition, in short, means your body influences your mind and, therefore, your attitudes are based on your behavior.

For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants who were given a warm cup of coffee, as opposed to cold cups of coffee, were more likely to judge someone else as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. This is embodied cognition.

So how can you use this in your copywriting? By understanding that the mere act of searching for alternatives to your suggestions in your sales copy, the reader’s brain may infer that your suggestion is inferior. This is an example of the mind following the body. The mere act of searchingmay lead people subconsciously to believe that your solution is less attractive (Ge, Brigden, & Häubl, 2015).

Eliminate any chance of this by giving the reader the alternatives in your copy itself so they don’t have to search for them. You don’t have to make your alternatives be better than your solution – but simply mention them and explain the differences between them and your solution. This will help alleviate the reader’s concerns and eliminate the need to search for alternatives.

Note:  Psychology is such a complex field and some may wonder why I even mention the psychological principles behind these copywriting tips.  The reason is that it helps us remember them even if you (and I too, since I’m not a psych major) don’t fully understand the reasoning behind the principles.

However, keep in mind this is just a tiny introduction to the vast, but fascinating, world of copywriting.  If you would like to learn more about copywriting, see my link below.

Margery Hinman, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of Million Dollar Marketer, a membership program combining a collection of online text and video tutorials, resources, and strategies for the rising online entrepreneur. Our Copywriting Mastery course is just one of our 20 different digital marketing strategy courses that can help you achieve your online goals. Visit us today at www.MillionDollarMarketer.org.