At ToneDen, where we’re building systems to automate social marketing, we’ve been attempting to address a simple question with a complex answer: how do you get someone to buy something on social media?

In constructing a framework to answer this question, we’ve found ourselves connecting patterns of human decision making to how people buy online today. Decades of research have given us the theory that people make a majority of decisions using their intuition or emotions. The following outlines a hypothesis which argues that if people make decisions based on feelings, online social networks provide the richest behavioral context to influence decisions to buy.

The internet has changed how someone makes a decision to consume something today.

Our foraging ancestors, who spent most of their day searching and preparing food, made decisions in a different context than the modern consumer. The internet, connecting buyers to sellers, is incredibly efficient in delivering the information we need to make decisions today. With technology meeting our basic needs, humans have graduated from foraging for food to foraging for information. The blogs, tweets, and stories that we engage with every day frame the context we use to craft our decisions on what to buy and consume.

With the abundance of information online to influence decision-making, it’s tempting to argue that the decision process has become more complicated. Back in 1812, Pierre-Simon Laplace, an influential thinker of his time, argued that humans make decisions in a predictable, educated, and rational way. This is how psychologists, economists, and marketers have thought about — and, in many ways, still think about — how people make decisions.

The belief that we make decisions rationally is inherently biased in our confidence that we are intelligent and informed individuals who possess nature’s most advanced computer — the human brain. Although capable of miraculous calculation and analyses, the brain is susceptible to the most powerful kind of influence by things like circumstances, mood, relationships, and feelings.

We are a highly intelligent species hardwired to make decisions in a very dumb way.

For example, consider you’re in line at Starbucks deciding to buy a cookie that’s on display. In making this decision, you may consider things like the value of the cookie relative to its price, the effect of eating that cookie on your weight loss plan, or if the cookie’s ingredients were sourced from countries that have unjust production processes. Conversely, you might want to buy the cookie because you like the taste of cookies, or that cookie reminds you of the ones your mom used to bake, or because you’re just plain hungry.

There are two modes of thought here.

One is informed, calculable, and analytical. The other is quick, intuitive, and automatic. Is a decision made using reason alone independent from one that is motivated by gut-feelings? How often do we find ourselves making impulsive choices without the influence of qualitative information or quantitative data? Maybe we’re not so different from our hunting and gathering ancestors after all.

In the 1970’s, two Israeli psychologists challenged the long-standing assumption that people make practical and reasonable decisions. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, repeatedly proved that humans are often irrational when making choices. Their groundbreaking work demonstrated that the way people process information involves both thinking and feeling, but feeling is always faster.

Kahneman classifies two distinct ways of how people think: fast (System 1) and slow (System 2). System 1 describes the part of the brain that’s quick, intuitive, and effortless. System 2, more recently evolved in the human consciousness, is analytical, clever, and deliberate. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, humans are much better at System 1 than System 2. People think hard and long about a decision only when circumstances require them to do so. It takes much less effort for us to default to our emotions when making a choice to buy or not to buy.

‘We’re not thinking machines that feel, we’re feeling machines that think’. — Antonio Demasio

We see businesses and brands putting a lot of effort into communicating or selling the physical features of their product. Real people, however, most always buy a product for its ephemeral features rather than the essential qualities that make that product what it is. When people buy stuff, they buy because it benefits them in some way. These decisions are made using System 1 thinking.

Advertising is how marketers can groom System 1.

MRI imagery of the brain shows that when people evaluate a brand or product, they generally use emotions such as personal feelings or memories rather than information on features and facts. Great advertising influences decisions that are automatic rather than calculated.

If science shows us that humans are prone to making decisions based on gut feelings, how can we engage autonomous thinking centers of people’s brains to make them want something?

One of the key ingredients that can impact decision influence is data. Identifying characteristics of the ideal buyer can vastly simplify triggering innate decision responses. For example, in a print ad for a Betty Crocker pie, researchers found that the ad with the fork placed on the right side of the plate triggered a 20% higher purchase intent when compared to the ad with the fork placed on the left. Why? Over 70% of the human population is right-handed. Even in the simplest form, data about your target buyer can significantly influence System 1 decision making.

We live in a time where the human personality has been digitized.

Our behaviors, interests, habits, and emotions are being catalogued on a massive scale. With billions of people interconnected online who consume insurmountable amounts of information, we have petabytes of real-time decision-making data processed every minute. Social networks are largely responsible for defining this digital phenotype, providing us with the infrastructure to decode the decision-making process of the modern consumer.

If how people behave on social media can be quantifiably and qualitatively categorized, maybe we can use this data to paint a picture of how people make buying decisions.

Some smart folks at Pinterest and Stanford took a crack at this by looking at how social engagement on Pinterest could lead to a purchasing decision. Their analysis of over 3 million Pinterest users showed a distinct correlation between social behavior and purchasing intent. Users began liking, sharing, and interacting with a brand or product only hours before buying it.

Social platforms provide the perfect habitat to nurture decisions based on feelings.

The extent of human emotions exists today in the forms of likes, shares, reposts, and follows. These actions don’t usually require research, analysis, or deep thought. In other words, the majority of online social behavior is not a product of System 2 thinking. To us, social engagement has become automatic and habitual.

System 1 decisions dominate our behavior online.

If the majority of decisions are informed by emotions, social networks are the best channels to influence those decisions today. If creators, businesses, and brands can leverage social data to target people most likely to buy, then they can be more effective in converting them as customers.

We hope this Social Buying Hypothesis provides you with a foundation for understanding how consumers may decide to buy today. There’s a certain way people make decisions and the data to influence those decisions exists, but the real challenge becomes being able to trigger the right emotions within the potential buyer at the right time. Uniting the data that describes the ideal buyer is the first step. From there, patterns in why and when their System 1 thinking kicks in will emerge, and that’s where you might be able to tune those gut instincts in your favor.

We’re working on proving this programmatically with a system that is designed to better identify patterns that lead to buying decisions across multiple social networks. We’ve seen that under the right conditions, people can respond instinctively to formulating decisions to buy or consume. By baking this into tools that help reach the people most likely to buy, we believe we can empower anyone to build long-lasting businesses online.