Bringing User Psychology to the forefront of CRO

by David Mannheim

posted on: January 27th 2017

‘Just as Galileo removed the earth from the centre of the universe, the current revolution remove the conscious mind from the centre of human behaviour.’

John Bargh

Bargh’s words mark a dramatic shift in our understand of how and why human beings commit to performing a particular action. This unmooring of the conscious ego from the centre of the human decision-making process has been a key development in the evolution of conversion rate optimisation and it’s understanding of user psychology and behaviour.

Testing hypothesis after hypothesis to uncover what it is that gets a specific user group to tick has, consequently, led to the Conversion Rate Optimisation industry becoming engaged in one of the largest studies into human behaviour, with the data gleaned from the exponentially growing number of A/B tests running on website around the world, offering a unique and in-depth understanding into human psychology and behaviour.

What, then, is it that makes a user behave in a particular way? Who is making the decision? And, how can Conversion Rate Optimisation consultant utilise existing research into human behaviour and psychology to complement their work.

Human beings are a complex, unique and fascinating species. We are capable of simultaneously living in the past, present and future, with our brains, currently the most complicated and intricate object in the known universe, capable of the most magnificent feats of imagination, intellect, logic and innovation, yet, at times, wholly enslave to latent drives, wants and desires, which, at times, supersede and dominate our consciousness and logical decision making.

Albeit an intricate and astonishing complex development, the area of the brain responsible for consciousness, language, sensory perception, spatial reasoning and general cognition – the neocortex, or mammalian brain – is a fairly modern development in our evolutionary history, with the sonorous echo of our ancient pre-history woven into the anatomical structure of our minds and reverberating throughout our decision-making process.


Although denounced in some circles as a reductive oversimplification of the anatomical structure of the mind, the Triune Brian theory, first proposed by American Physician and neuroscientist, Paul MacLean, and widely popularised by Carl Sagan in his Pulitzer prize winning work, The Dragon of Eden, offers us some insight into the nature of the mind and how competing voices fight for recognition. Leaning heavily on the tripartite Triune theory, American Psychology, Daniel Kahneman, in his famed work, Thinking Fast and Slow, presented a bifurcated theory of mind, arguing for the existence of System One (Reptilian and Middle Brain) and System Two (Neocortex).


Echoing similar theories into hemispherical divide, according to Kahnman’s research, the reptilian brain reigns supreme. This ties in with the argument present by distinguished Harvard Professor, Gerald Zaltman, who argued that only 5% of our cognitive processing is conscious, with the remaining 95% being non-conscious, or unconscious, and subject to the machination of our latent, ancient, innate reptilian drives and desire.

For Kahnman, Zaltman and psychologist pursuing this trail of thought, the ancient reptilian brain, characterised by its survival instincts, atavistic expression, overt selfishness and dripping with the primordial ooze of evolutionary ancestry, with the trace memory of the tempestuous middle Palaeolithic ricocheting throughout the syntactic connections of the mind, drives our decision-making process. As Conversion Rate Optimisation professionals, it is our job to understand what is it that activates the reptilian mind when user accesses a website; translating our understanding into innovative design, testing hypotheses and user experience development.

Marketers have known for a long time that the consumer decision-making process is not wholly logical and subject to myriad expressions of irrationality and unconscious desire. The father of Public Relations, and nephew to Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, knew this well. Bernays managed to convince young, aspirational women to start smoking, dubbing cigarettes: Torches of Freedom. Now widely known to be extremely dangerous to health, in this instance, Bernays managed to not only present Cigarettes as anodyne, but was also able to transcended their use, becoming symbols of freedom; Torches of Freedom, the proposed means for women to escape the dominance of patriarchal society.


The logical, conscious part of the mind wants to know the price, delivery date, whether the product can withstand the wear and tear of daily life, however, there is something else listening in the mind; something that helps metamorphosize cigarettes from simple vice into a revolution symbol. It’s completely irrational, but Bernays managed to vastly increase cigarette sales by appealing to something other than the product as an object, namely how incarnate in the object was the possibility of personal emancipation.

Logically, we all know cigarettes, or anything else for that matter, has nothing to do with gaining freedom. However, beneath the logical deductions, lurks a murky world of irrationality; a competing voice governing decisions, beyond our conscious control. Although a simple test, the Stroop Test plainly illustrates the internal tension and argument going on between the conscious and non-conscious, or unconscious, aspect of the mind.


It’s rather annoying. You find yourself getting into a rhythm – red, blue, red, blue -, desperately trying to say the colour; then, as if another voice has forced out the syllables from somewhere you’re not in control of, out comes ‘red’. Simply put, this test illustrates an interesting phenomena: pre-conscious desires, wants and needs have the potential to interrupt and govern conscious behaviour.

This paradoxically old, yet newly discovered aspect of human behaviour, opens the doors to a deluge of new considerations conversion rate optimisers must be aware of. If, therefore, the conscious will is not in charge, the logical mind does not control the actions of the individual, what does? Robert Doley outlines this in his article, which, in short, seeks to outline the ways in which we, as conversion rate optimisation professionals, can activate the reptilian expression of user psychology.

Doley outlines how we must seek to activate the threatened, self-centred aspect of human nature. That part of the mind that flickers into life when threatened, or that part of the mind glowing in brain scans when it’s favourite subject is under discussion or implied, namely the self.

In addition, Doley proposes the importance of contrast; how the reptilian mind instantly understands difference, while simultaneously relating an image to itself. Visual contrast is extremely powerful, with research showing how the optic nerve is connected directly to the reptilian brain. It is, therefore, primarily influenced by imagery; by high resolution, relatable and aspirational imagery. The implied conflation of the image of the Statue of Liberty with a young women holding a cigarette, plainly illustrates this.


As conversion rate optimisation consultants, we are well aware that there is no single solution, and each audience we work with will be unique. However, appreciating the presence of multiple voices within the single user, allows us to design, test and implement solutions that takes into account competing voices.

Data may show how a logical proposition affects the behaviour of users, however, why not test something else? Maybe it is delivery or prices that moves the user to convert. But then again, maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s something we aren’t sure how to talk to, something that tells the user who they are, what they could be. Maybe it’s something we haven’t the language for; some ancient esoteric aspect of the mind which, given the right stimuli, pushes the conscious will aside, as the user strolls towards a conversion; like sleepwalking.

avatar for author

David Mannheim

David is an experienced conversion optimiser and has worked across a series of core optimisation disciplines including web analytics, user experience and AB & MVT testing.

Bringing User Psychology to the forefront of CRO

by David Mannheim Time to read: 5 min