Are Your Customers High?

Are Your Customers High?


In a time where each consumer sees thousands of advertisements or corporate symbols every day this article discusses several components of the highly researched area of drug addiction and draws parallels use in the world of sales and networking. The bulk of this article is based on the knowledge and research of Dr. Scott Lukas, Dr. Robert Cialdini, and Dr. Kevin Hogan who are experts in reward circuitry and the psychology of influence and persuasion. By examining the way and reasons why we become addicted to substances and activities we can discover truths about how the reward circuitry in our brain works and create actionable product positioning and sales steps towards a more profitable business or successful career.


Virtually everyone becomes addicted to something at some point in their lives. Many times it is to drugs like nicotine or caffeine but it can also be to sex or the feelings experienced while shopping with a group of friends. Our brains are wired to reward positive experiences that benefit us while minimizing those things that create a negative impact or feelings on our life. This reward center pathology is at the core of what creates patterns of use that are very reinforcing and sometimes lead to negative health consequences or even death. This is because the brain can become conditioned into desiring a certain behavior or substance to the point where the logical points of ceasing the activity are ignored(Kuhn 2003). A good analogy for this is imagining your unconscious mind is a jet engine strapped to the back of your conscious mind, a minicooper. When your unconscious mind fires it can be difficult to control the steering, or bring it to a halt. It is not often that experts in sales and marketing look directly at addiction for clues on how to gain loyal customers. This means that while most companies profit from our natural reward center pathology, few consciously apply an ethical yet systematic application of these lessons in an attempt to tap the same reward circuits that creates addiction.

This article discusses four components of addiction; initiating use, the environment, a rapid high after use, and the employment of cues. The goal is to introduce specific methods that a company as a whole or individual sales person could use to create an addicting product or service without the use of any drugs. While the use of these methods brings up several ethical issues, these warrant a lengthy discussion in itself and will not be discussed in this piece.

Description of Key Findings

There are three types of drug (or product) users. Experimenters, Compulsive users, and Floaters.

  • Experimenters are usually defined as those individuals who use a drug from time to time but generally out of peer pressure or curiosity. The equivalent to this might be the individual who only goes to the gym when going along with a friend or to see what cardio classes are offered.
  • Floaters are those who use relatively sparingly and mostly when provided with the drug from someone else. An example of this could be the individual who only goes to the gym for four weeks out of the year during the times when his friends can get him the two week free gym trial memberships.
  • Compulsive Users focus a relatively large percentage of their energy to use of the drug. An example of this is the individual who enjoys going to the gym 90 minutes everyday. In addition to the workouts this person might also spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours a month on sports supplements and research on how to increase their gains from working out (Dr. Lukas PSYCE-1410)

The point of describing these three types is that individuals can move between the groups. What’s important to note however is that most people who become compulsive users cannot easily downgrade and maintain their drug use at the experimenter or floater level. A parallel can be seen in product purchasing patterns. Sales people should work towards converting the experimenters and floaters of their product up towards being a compulsive user. The point is not to convince someone to do something that is unhealthy financially or physiologically. In the example of the gym members the movement would be from slightly profitable customers to extremely profitable customers.

Initiating Drug/Product Use

To get someone addicted to using your product or at least to have them experience some positive reinforcing experiences they will have to at least try your product. Therefore the first step is finding an in-road to a new customer. Dr. Lukas of Harvard University has detailed these two learning-based processes that can lead to experimenting with a new drug or product:

  • Your peer group is 2nd only to your parents in their ability to influence your drug-taking behavior
  • If a drug is associated with gaining approval or affection it can be reinforcing (Dr. Lukas PSCYE-1410)

Do we have any reason to believe that this would be different for product purchasing behaviors? The success of Avon, viral marketing firms, Mary K, and websites such as are great examples of peer groups and families being used for commercial gains. Dr. Robert Cialdini of the Arizona State University has done a significant amount of research on this subject of peer and social pressure. He calls it “social proof,” and believes that one of the most powerful ways people make decisions is looking to see what others are doing or believing in that arena. This is even more heavily relied upon in situations of uncertainty or when the individual believes that the others being observed are similar to themselves. (Cialdini 2001)

Before you can create an environment to “addict” someone to your product, you will have to educate them. If they don’t know you exist they cannot seek you out. Camel Cigarettes is an expert at making sure everyone knows that they exist. In Fischer’s 1991 study on brand logo recognition his team found that 30% of 3-year-old and 91.3% of 6-year-old children could match the Joe Camel logo with a picture of a cigarette. Starting a very young age we are exposed to and remember advertisements. (P.M. Fischer 1991). Do 3 year olds recognize your logo? Does it matter? The point is imagery is a very powerful way of raising familiarity with a product and is the most popular reminder or cue (more on this later) that corporations use today.

Environmental Influence

How do most people act in the library? How about at a dance club? A Church? The meek and shy will sing out in church and the overly extroverted vocal individuals will remain quiet in a library. These are direct effects of the environment influencing how we act.

The environment an individual is in directly affects the likeliness and extent to which they will buy and use a drug. There is strong evidence that individuals that have taken a certain dose of a drug in a comfortable familiar environment later overdosed while taking the same amount of the drug in an unfamiliar environment (Dr. Lukas PSYCE-1410). This shows how powerful our environment is on influencing our actions. Dr. Kevin Hogan author of “The Science of Influence” believes that changing the environment is the single most powerful way to influence someone’s behavior.

This has two important applications to accessing profitable reward circuits. The first is that you can increase some immediate positive impressions or experiences by setting the right environment. In the same way you can limit any immediate negative perceptions or feelings by being sensitive to what might set some of those off. The environment can stimulate new behavior and almost instantly changes an individual’s actions when they enter into it. The second important application is that in a new environment the brain is trying to interpret and adapt so enters into what Hogan refers to as a “state of flux” and it becomes influenced much easier (Hogan 2005).

Smoke the competition

Smoking a drug is the quickest way for a user to feel a high. The active ingredients enter the lungs where the alveoli capillaries absorb the substance and the blood is quickly pumped through the heart and directly to the brain. Smoked substances are usually the most addictive because of the rapid onset of positive feelings experienced after taking a hit.

One of the best pieces of evidence that something will become addicting is when there is an immediate positive experience following the activity with a delayed or un-associated negative experience. The closer the positive experience is to the action and the farther away the negative experience is, the more likely the drug is to become addicting. Dr. Robert Cialdini and Dr. Kevin Hogan have both conducted extensive research on influencing others by creating a positive initial experience for new customers.

Dr. Robert Cialdini has completed over 30 years of research in the psychology of influence. His most well known book entitled, Influence: Science and Practice, details 6 tools of influence and was based on decades of research focused on the logic and mechanics behind influencing others in the business world.

To gain an instant positive first impression Dr. Cialdini prescribes to use the influence tools of Liking and Reciprocation. Below are descriptions of these tools that directly relate to and work with the immediate positive experience components of addiction.

  • Liking: The Friendly Thief
    • People like to buy from other people they know and like. Physical attractiveness, similarity, and familiarity are three levers that can be employed to increase this “liking” factor.
  • Reciprocation: The Old Give and Take…and Take
    • This deeply imbedded social rule is what makes one feel obligated to repay someone who has provided us with a gift, favor, or concession.

Dr. Cialdini does not research reward pathways or the process by which we become addicted to activities or drugs. His research describes how you can gain a greater ability to influence others or defend yourself against those who might be using these same tools of influence. This is an important distinction because his advice is in line with the lessons that can be taken by looking at addiction and the reward pathways that fuel it.

If you follow Dr. Cialdini’s advice you successfully give something away that your customer believes is valuable and come off as very friendly and likeable you would not only create an obligation on their behalf to repay you with a purchase but you would be triggering their reward center pathways in the same fashion as a drug with a high potential of being addicting. The quicker and more powerful the early positive experience the more “addictive” your product or service becomes. (Cialdini 2001)

Dr. Kevin Hogan believes we are constantly undergoing 4 second evaluations. Every time somebody sees us they are evaluating dozens of details about our clothes, body language, hair, facial expression, and movements to categorize us into a general yes or no category. Do they generally like you and associate with you or feel that you completely different or possibly someone with different values and morals? You are placing everyone in buckets of Yes I would like to meet or do business with this person or No, I am not interested.

All of this happens very rapidly and almost completely unconsciously. It is part of how we are wired, relying upon thousands of mini stereotypes that help us make decisions such as deciding whether to trust a company, product, or sales person. One some level this is almost required of us so that we can process all of the information we receive (Bodenhausen, Macrae, & Sherman, 1999, Fiske & Nueberg, 1990), it helps us make sense of everything without having to start from scratch with each observation (Gigerenzer & Golstein, 1996) In The Science of Influence Dr. Hogan discusses how your first impression is recorded and used again and again later in time. Manage your four seconds. (Hogan 2005)

What does your logo, website, customer service reps, store, and product say within 4 seconds of looking at or talking with them? It has been shown that we automatically assign traits such as talent, kindness, honestly, and intelligence to attractive individuals (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo 1991). While I have not found a specific study on the same effect applying to products I believe that an attractively designed product would create automatic judgments of the products quality, reliability, value, etc. This is a powerful piece of the puzzle because all of these judgments occur so rapidly, if you can make them extremely positive you or your product will be far more attractive. Four seconds happens to be very close to the amount of time it takes for a smoked substance to enter the blood brain barrier and create a high. If you can get your customer to smoke your drug(try your product), do you want them to feel nothing, get sick to their stomach, or really high?

Bottom line: Create a rapid and powerful positive experience for your customer. Use the rule of reciprocity, be likeable and friendly, be cognizant of the first 4 seconds, and avoid or delay any negative experiences or feelings at all costs. Remember, once you have done the legwork to get them to “smoke” your product experience you want to make sure that your product creates the most rapid positive experience possible to create an initial advantage over your competitors.

Cues – Reinforcing Use/Purchases

One of the most commercially profitable lessons to take from the world of psychopharmacology is the role that cues play in the process of addiction and drug use in general. Cues are triggers, reminders of a dug that makes you think of feelings and experiences associated with a drug. Cues are often what reminds users to continue use, immediately seek the drug, or relapse and begin use again. Cues are so powerful that after months in a drug rehab program a single cue can set someone on edge and induce use. Cues can be odors, symbolic objects, sounds, or people. Activity in several areas of the brain rapidly change after a cue is observed. An example of a cue for someone who has quit smoking could be the simple smell of a lit cigarette being held by someone walking 20 feet ahead of them on the sidewalk. Just the smell triggers activity in their brain and brings back the old desire and feelings that led them to begin or constantly reinforced smoking in the first place (PSYCE-1410). Cues are used in the business world all of the time. They are billboards, freshly baked cinnamon rolls placed on a shelf, or life size Oscar Meyer Weiner waving you towards their hot dog stand on the corner of the street. These are things that remind us of the positive experiences we associate with a product.

The following is based on a true story and it provides examples of cues that can be and are commercially employed.

Imagine a 30 year old woman who used to shop at Macy’s 3-4 days a week after work or during her lunch break. It was comfortable, fun, and exciting. For years she continues this “use” of shopping on a weekly basis enjoying new purses, shoes, and perfumes. While this was not going to put her into financial ruin, her husband would like to buy a vacation home and they have been trying to save more money for one. At one point she successfully reduced her shopping at Macy’s to one weekend a month when she would go out with her husband. One day at lunch she eats in a food court and walks past the front of Macy’s on the way there. She can smell all of the perfumes and lotions (Cue #1: Smell) that are just inside the open doors. Several areas of her brain are activated by this cue and she begins thinking about how fun it would be to go shopping for some new spring clothes. She goes to lunch and all she can think about is how her purse is looking a little out of style and how she wishes she could buy the same shoes the lady is wearing (Cue #2: Symbolic Object) at the table next to her. She resists the urge to shop and tries to forget about the whole thing. Two days later she gets a Macy’s catalog (Cue #3: Image) in the mail, they have a 40% off sale. That same day she takes a two hour break from work and heads to Macy’s. As she searches the racks and tries on each item her brain is being flooded with dopamine and she remembers exactly why she used to shop 3-4 days a week. She ends up spending over $1,000 on products she could have done with out.

The golden nugget to take from the use of cues is that through thorough analysis of each type of customer you serve you can inject daily reminders of the high they experienced or could experience from purchasing your product. Analyze your business practices and systematically tinker with using cues that other professionals in your industry have ignored.


Hundreds of studies have been conducted on influence and persuasion and hundreds more on addiction. Very few articles or live experiments have looked for a direct connection between these two areas. This article has detailed four direct ways to learn from the thousands of research studies done on addiction and reward circuitry in the brain and use it to create loyal customers who can’t get enough of your product. These include Initiating Use, Environmental Influence, Smoking the Competition, and Employing cues. Using these in a systematic fashion will uncover ethical avenues of creating a more profitable customer base.


Bodenhausen, G.V. (1990). Stereotypes as judgmental heuristics: Evidence of circadian variations in discrimination. Psychological Science, 1, 319-322.

Cialdini, Robert B., “Influence: Science and Practice” 4th Edition Copyright 2001 by Allyn & Bacon. See also

Eagly, A.H., Ashmore, R.D., Makhijani, M.G. & Longo, L. C. (1991) “What is beaitufl is good but…”: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype.

Fiske, S.T., & Nueberg, S.L. (1990). A continuum of impression formation: Influences of information and motivation on attention and interpretation. In M.P. Zanna (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol 23, pp. 1-75. New York: Academic Press.

Gigerenzer, G., & Goldstein, D.G. (1996). Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality. Psychological Review, 103, 650-669.

Hogan, Kevin, “The Science of Influence.” Copyright 2005 by Kevin Hogan.

Kuhn, Swartzwelder, Wilson, “Buzzed” Copyright 2003 by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott

Lukas, Scott E., “Psychopharmacology lecture notes,” Harvard University. Copyright 2006 Harvard University.

P.M. Fischer, M. P. Schwartz, J. W. Richards Jr, A. O. Goldstein and T.H. Rojas “Brand logo recognition by children aged 3 to 6 years. Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel JAMA, Dec 1991; 266: 3145 – 3148

- Richard

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