Tired brains, heuristics and better products: How to turn new year’s resolutions into new customers

Customers have limited mental will power. Making positive choices tires the brain, making it harder to continue making positive choices. People use heuristics – mental short-cuts – to make it easier to decide between products. Customers don’t look for the best product, but the product that suits them best.

New Years Resolution List in notebookThe beginning of the year has rolled around, and everybody is armed with a fresh list of new year’s resolutions. We’re all motivated to eat healthily, do more exercise and recycle more.

And all this means big business. With up to $5.6 billion spent annually on new year’s resolutions, it is becoming more important than ever to find a way of tapping this (let’s be honest) short-lived market. People want to create the best version of themselves, and they’re willing to pay for it. Be it the latest gym wear, organic food or a luxury holiday, people are willing to pay big for the best products that are going to help them in their quest for betterment.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? If your product is the best on the market, it will practically sell itself this time of year. What better time to gain new customers?

Or maybe not.

One obscure detail of the human brain means people are actually less likely to buy the “best” product on the market at this time of year.


Making positive choices all the time is hard work for the brain. And when the brain gets tired, we go back to choosing what we know. So, instead of hunting around to buy the best product or changing to a higher quality service provider, we stick with what we know and trust.

Psychologists use the term “Ego Depletion” to describe this phenomenon. Just like any other muscle in the body, if the brain is used too much it becomes fatigued. The more tired your brain, the lower your mental willpower and the less effective it will be at making the right decision.

New year's resolution statistics and list


At this point it starts using energy-saving techniques or short-cuts. When faced with a multitude of products to choose from, your brain gets overwhelmed because of all the will power it has been spending recently on making the right choices. So, it leans towards products it already knows or fail-safe decision-making processes.


In the world of behavioural economics this is known as Heuristics – mental short-cuts that help us make decisions about what to buy quickly and easily. Psychologist, Stefani Nellan, explains that these heuristics are rooted in reaction rather than selection. The brain would rather not work harder than it has to, so it takes the easiest route to a decision – namely, via gut reaction.

“The use of heuristics is conceptualised as being rooted in reaction rather than selection.”

Think about it. You’ve vowed to eat healthily because it’s a new year and you go to the supermarket to buy groceries after a long, hard day at work. Do you really have the energy to count the calories on every cereal box to choose the healthiest? Probably not. It’s more likely that you take the one you always take or, as a last ditch effort, you strike out for the one that is branded as good-for-you.

Special K cereal full of sugarAny box of cereal can have ‘good-for-you’ stamped on the side, that doesn’t actually make it good for you. Special K, for instance, is branded as a healthy cereal but it has more sugar than a Krispy Crème doughnut! But the point is, you bought it because your brain was tired and the mental work had already been done for you; you didn’t have to compare all the boxes yourself.


New research in Cognitive Psychology shows that Ego Depletion leads specifically to a type of heuristic known as “Take-The-Best” (TTB) heuristics. When faced with numerous options, people make a judgement based on one “good” reason and ignore all the other reasons for and against a product.

When ego depletion kicks in and our brains get tired, we ignore the vast majority of the information that could help us make an informed, well-balanced decision. Instead, we consider one factor alone and make our decision based on that.

Nutritional Value. Tiring for brain to read

Fancy deciphering 10 of these to work out which cereal is healthiest? No thanks

Let’s go back to our cereal example. There are several factors contributing to the nutritional value of a box of cereal such as: sugar, calories, fibre, vitamins, complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates and so on.

Reading the packaging and comparing all of these factors for every available option would take far too much time and mental energy. So, we often limit our choice to one determining factor and ignore the rest.

Counting calories, for example, is a common technique used to determine the nutritional value of food. This is a classic example of TTB heuristic. In our supermarket example, the heuristic was even more basic than that – does the packaging look “healthy” or not?


As a business owner, this leaves you with a rather distressing question:

What is the point in developing the best product if nobody has the mental energy to work out that it is the best? Clearly, it’s not enough to simply advertise your product as the best on the market because everyone is doing that.

Tired Brain doing exercise

Fortunately, there is a solution to your distress. It is actually quite simple to overcome this hurdle and ensure your product stands out above the rest.

The solution comes from studying the meaning of “Best” in Take-The-Best. This “best” does not refer to the best quality product, but to the product that best suits the customer’s lifestyle – the one with the best benefits.

This distinction may be small but it is extremely important. And to grasp this distinction it may require you to think about your product in a slightly different way.

In general, your customers don’t care about the high quality specs and technical features of your product. What interests them is how it will improve their lives. And this is what will convince them to buy one product over another – the one they think will make their lives easier, more interesting, or healthier is the one they will go for.


What’s more, when buying a specific product, people tend to have one of these goals in mind. Like when buying cereal for instance, you’re looking for the one that will make you a healthier person.

So, when people say they want the best product, they don’t actually mean they want the best quality – they want the best benefits.

Armed with this new perspective, you can see how to market your own product to make it stand out from the competition. If your product meets the needs of your customer best, they are more likely to buy it.

And this does not just apply to the post-New Year market. Our brains get tired all year round so we slip into using our heuristics (mental short-cuts) all the time. Making sure your product stands out as the most useful to your customer will help their tired brains navigate through the competition, straight to you.

Heuristic and its opposites


Of course, this means you need to understand the specific benefits your customers expect to gain from your product. And this means knowing your customer intimately. Who are they? Why do they buy your product? Why do they (if ever) stop buying your product?

Asking these questions will put you on the right path to knowing your customer’s needs and the benefits they are looking for in a product. This is a sure-fire way of ensuring your product stands out from the crowd; and it doesn’t succumb to the decision-making heuristics of tired brains.

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