Flash: Science Now Tells Us We Have Three Brains

Why you should load up your online copywriting with benefits and “reasons why” that give your customers the “rational armament” to defend their purchase decisions

Any copywriting instructor will tell you that it’s vital to write about a product’s benefits.

“The more you tell, the more you sell,” they say. Benefits, benefits, benefits. That’s the primary thrust of your sales pitch. Features that describe your product are nice to know, but benefits to the customer are what close the sale.

At least, that’s been the conventional wisdom since the birth of advertising and direct response marketing. And now, finally, in the 21st century, we’re beginning to understand why benefits are so important.

The reasons may surprise you.

In recent years, psychologists and neurologists have made startling discoveries that help to explain human behavior — including why people buy — with models that are at once both new and eerily familiar.

Science now tells us we have three brains.

Dr. Paul MacLean, Chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health, says our brains have evolved through three primary stages. His theory of the Triune Brain proposes that our skulls hold not one brain, but three.

First is the reptilian brain — responsible for instinctive, automatic, basic survival behaviors like fight or flight, hunger, fear and reproduction. It’s also the center for aggression, courtship, mating, and territorial defense.

Second is the limbic brain, which governs our emotions. It collects sensory information and screens it for emotional relevance.

And last, the neocortex brain — the control center for language and rational thinking. It’s the center for reading, speaking, writing and reasoning. It’s responsible for awareness, conscious thought and logic.

As a copywriter, you should be interested in all three brains, particularly the connection between the limbic and the reptilian, which Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille calls, “the logic of emotion” or how the emotions deal with the urges, instincts and needs we all have.

Dr. Rapaille is a child psychiatrist turned marketing researcher who convincingly argues that buying decisions have nothing to do with practical needs or rational decision making.

It’s the reptilian brain — the preconscious part where archetypes and primitive associations are imprinted — that makes our purchase decisions. It’s reptilian because we share it in common with reptiles like alligators and lizards.

The single focus of the reptilian brain is survival. The reptilian brain doesn’t entertain abstract thoughts; it doesn’t feel complex emotions such as love, envy and compassion.

You can stimulate the reptilian brain with words, but it operates instinctively and without conscious thought. And so we buy what we want, not necessarily what we need.

An online copywriter’s carefully written stories and product descriptions are capable of pushing the reptilian hot buttons that stimulate the most primitive impulses. Beyond the reptilian, the written word can push limbic hot buttons — higher level emotions that may be associated with family, children, parents, etc.

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As marketers, SEO copywriters need to appeal to all three brains in order to evoke a congruent purchase decision from our prospective customer.

Every human has the same basic (and often unspoken) needs. Everyone wants to be sexier, smarter, wealthier, secure, comfortable, warm, well-fed, etc. Additionally, we have needs that go beyond these basics that we may not even be aware of.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everybody is exactly the same. But we are very much alike. It’s arrogant to think that each of us is so unique that the similarities in our behaviors can’t be observed or predicted. In fact, savvy marketers are doing so with increasing precision.

The answer to the question, “Why does your customer buy?” is never simple. But you can be certain of this. His purchase decisions — indeed everyone’s purchase decisions — are never wholly rational, even when buying commodities or making B2B transactions.

Purchase decisions are made in the reptilian part of the human brain. Again, most of the time, we buy what we want, not necessarily what we need.

But because we need to rationalize these purchases, the copywriter’s job is to provide “reasons why,” in effect, giving the purchaser the “rational armament” with which to defend his purchase decision.

Did you ever make a purchase, and then tell someone about what a great buy you made? How you needed it? How it was a terrific deal? How the color was just perfect?

What’s going on here? Are you justifying your decision? Not explaining or informing, but defending?

That’s what the conscious mind does. It’s the rationalizer. We all do it. That’s how most buying decisions are made — in the unconscious mind.

Once the unconscious mind makes an emotional commitment to “yes” or “no”, it sends the conscious mind out into the world to gather all the rational reasons to support that decision. We call this rationalization.

Consciously or unconsciously, the customer “buys” with his reptilian brain, but he needs to justify his purchase — to himself and sometimes his boss (or spouse) — with rationalizations that justify his otherwise irrational behavior.

So, one of the online copywriter’s fundamental responsibilities is compiling plenty of benefits that help the buyer through this irrational process.


Agree?  Disagree? Please add your comments to the website version of this blog post.


Peter A. Schaible is Mequoda’s Chief Copywriter. For more of his unique perspective on copywriting, you can subscribe to his complimentary series on Targeting Your Prospective Customer by Type: How to Position Your Brand to Trigger an Emotional Response, available at www.SunDanceNewMedia.com. No obligation. No upsell.

    Peter A.

    While we’re crediting Dr. MacLean and Dr. Rapaille, I should hasten to add that this idea about “rational armament” was probably first articulated by Michael Gerber, whose E-Myth books have had an enormous influence on me and are mandatory reading for anyone going into business for himself.

    — Peter

    Lee H.

    Just to be clear, the 3 brain theory is called the Triune Brain Theory and has been around since the 1960’s, first proposed by Dr. Paul D. MacLean. He was ridiculed, but turns out to be dead-on!

    We are all ruled more by the limbic/reptillian system than we care to admit, so anyone in any field should be familiar with the less logical and more survival/emotional responses. Just remember, under stress, everybody moves more toward the crocodile than toward Dr. Spock!


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