How BEARS can help us sell (neuroscience and marketing)

Our amazing brains do more than think. Just like a computer, they have “background processes” constantly running, watching out for potential danger just as they have done for thousands of years to keep us alive. Nowadays, most of us don’t have to worry about being pounced on by predators but our protective instincts haven’t caught up with our social evolution. That protective brain activity is still operating and we can use an understanding of it to help build relationships and make sales.

In simple terms you can think of our brains as being not one but three systems. The reptilian brain controls basic body functions like breathing, heart rate and body temperature. The limbic system (also called the mammalian brain) is present in most mammals, and supports emotions, motivation, memories and behaviours. The neocortex, present only in the more advanced mammals like primates, is the “thinking” brain. We usually associate brain activity with thinking. However, we need to understand more about the limbic system, because that part of our brain is making us respond unconsciously.

Safety and Survival

The limbic system is there to help us survive. In evolutionary terms it has been vital for our continued existence. We don’t possess sharp claws, long teeth, great strength or anything significant that can help us individually to survive grave danger. Our survival depends on being part of a group of similar individuals. Part of our limbic system has evolved to make sure we find and maintain a safe place in a social group. There we can combine forces to ward off danger, collaborate to find food or shelter and care for one another.

Our limbic system is working in parallel with our neocortex, and much faster. It is watching out for anything that could potentially harm us, including the risk of being excluded from the protection of a social group. It automatically triggers a physical or emotional response which we refer to as  instinct, reaction, response or behaviour.

The limbic system’s monitoring process is constantly scanning for a sense of Belonging, Expectations, Autonomy and Rank. These four categories (BEAR) trigger different reactions which we, with our thinking brain, can anticipate in our social interaction and use in a productive way. Scientists can measure these triggers by monitoring the release of chemical signals in our brains and observing brain activity. These neuro chemicals are associated with positive feelings (Oxytocin, Seratonin and Dopamine) and emotions that drive action (Cortisol, Testosterone and Adrenaline). Let’s see how this affects human behaviour in the sales and marketing processes.


What’s going on: Our brain wants us to belong to a protective social group, so it releases chemicals to steer us away from the unfamiliar and towards the safety of a familiar “tribe”.

How we can use it: Customers usually prefer the safe option. They want to buy from people they trust, or from people that friends they trust buy from. The quick way to gain trust is for the buyer and seller to be perceived as being in the same social group. That group can be a vertical market, a specific geography or relevant demographic. Use your web site, collateral and sales conversations to emphasise how much you know about the group. For example, if you are selling to small businesses, have a small business page on your web site, have imagery of small businesses in your sales collateral, have customer case studies from small businesses or even have a “small business version” of the product or service.


What’s going on: Most of us feel deeply uncomfortable if we don’t know what is going to happen next. Thousands of years ago, we were constantly alert to what might be hiding behind a rock or tree, about to leap out and eat us. We probably didn’t relax until we were in the middle of a flat grassy plain or tucked up in a cave with a guard at the door and we could be sure nothing bad was about to happen.

How we can use it: Reduce uncertainty in your sales and marketing processes by explaining to the customer exactly how you will support them through the selection and buying process. This is particularly significant in large B2B purchases where it may be a first-time purchase or the purchase may not be made frequently, such as a new back-office business system or outsourcing services.  If you tell people what is going to happen, they will tend to stop worrying about possibilities and relate to you with more confidence. Also, make sure presentations and meetings have agendas and timescales shared early on. If people don’t know what is going to happen, they have a tendency to fill the gaps with their own imagination, which is rarely as good as the facts!


What’s going on: If we don’t have choices we feel trapped in a situation over which we have no control. Our limbic system thinks this could have a bad outcome, and makes us feel uneasy. In extreme or constant situations like living in an institution or under an oppressive regime, this can even result in increased incidences of depression, addiction and suicide.

How we can use it: We need to avoid “trapping” people, by offering them choices. This gives back a sense of control to the customer. We are more likely to receive a positive response if we offer choices, and the classic Alternative Close plays on this human instinct. If we offer choices and a sense of control to the customer, they will have more confidence and will more willingly move along the sales cycle.

Autonomy even has a place in something as simple as document formatting to improve readability. If you present your prospects with sales collateral or proposals containing a solid mass of text with few paragraph breaks or subheadings, there is no alternative but to start at the beginning and work all the way through, with no obvious exit until the end. The limbic system responds negatively, and wants to exercise the only other option available which is to not read it. By providing a well-structured document with at least paragraph breaks and sub headings, the reader has several choices: skim read the sub-headings, dip into interesting topics or read part of it and come back later. Not surprisingly, that’s what we all prefer.


What’s going on: In a social group, people with higher rank get the most food, best partners and the most comfortable lifestyle. That means they are more likely to survive. Therefore, rank is important for survival.

How we can use it: Think of this in reverse. If rank is important to us, it must be important to others too. We can act in a way that other people’s limbic systems perceive as a promotion to higher rank, and release feel-good chemicals. This is the root of politeness! Have you ever wondered why you like people being polite, and don’t like rudeness? To build rapport and great relationships, subtly “promote” the other person or persons. Ask questions and listen attentively to their answers. If they had had to make decisions, compliment or encourage them on their choices. Thank them for their contributions. Show you care for and value the other person – a genuine “thank you” can have amazing results. This works for customers and also your own internal teams, who are helping you to win more business. Write in the first person on websites and in other content, and customise content as much as possible so the audience feels that you are communicating with them as an individual rather than an anonymous member of a crowd.


Much of this may be obvious. We know it and as professionals and nice people, we probably do it. However sometimes we forget, we are too busy or we just don’t think it is that important in the moment. Hopefully this simple explanation will show the underlying reasons for those behaviours in ourselves and others, demonstrating why it is important. It will enable you to make your own connections between the limbic system, people’s behaviour and the outcomes you want.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and other academics study our behaviours and usually publish papers only available in academic journals. However thanks to people like Michael Bungay Stanier, Dr. Carol Dweck and Dean Burnett we can read more readily accessible explanations for our brains’ hidden patterns. Nick Kolenda also has some very informative blogs and videos and a brand new book, “The Tangled Mind”. I am very grateful for their publications and if you have an interest in the subject, I can strongly recommend their books and blogs (see links below).

Neville Merritt