People don’t decide what to do on your web site – it’s all pre-determined

For several years psychologists have known that just before we make a decision to move a muscle, say to move that mouse you have in your hand, or to type on your keyboard, there is a burst of subconscious brain activity. What appears to be happening is that all the information our muscles need to make the right movements we want is being assembled in our brains without us having to think about it.

That’s actually a very good thing. Imagine, walking down the road if you were consciously aware of all the brain activity needed to get those legs and feet moving…! You’d never have time to think, talk or take in the view….!

However, a new twist on this old bit of knowledge has recently been published by researchers from Berlin. They have discovered that our subconscious has settled on a decision long before we are consciously aware of it. In other words, we don’t actually make conscious decisions at all. Our subconscious makes them – then we become aware of those decisions and believe we have actually just made them. In a sense our brain is controlling what we do and we, consciously, get only a little say.

So, how does our brain get all the information it needs to make decisions at a subconscious level? And how does it come up with the “right” decision? Interesting questions, for sure. But it’s probably not that complex.

You already know your loves, hates, desires, interests, dislikes and so on. They are instinctive to you. For instance, I really dislike the colour brown – to me it’s neither one thing or the other. It’s not dark enough to be black; it’s not light enough to be orange. To me it’s a colour that can’t really make up its mind what it is – and I like things to be rather definite. So to me, brown is just yuk.

But my subconscious knows that – I don’t have to look at something that’s brown to go “oh, that’s not my favourite colour, let’s move on”. My subconscious brain clearly steers me around the brown section in the clothes shop. I never see the clothes in brown, yet they must be there. My subconscious knows what to do and controls my behaviour to suit me.

So, when it comes to web sites, millions of people are being controlled not by their free will, but by what their subconscious brain already knows about their preferences. It means that every day, people either engage or disengage from your web site not because they made a conscious decision to stick around or to stop reading, but because their subconscious made the decision first based on some rather basic information.

Give the wrong subconscious signals and you could lose many readers; give the right subconscious signals and gain readers. Take a typical Wikipedia page as an example. It gives the subconscious signal that it is material that needs to be read, it appears detailed and there are references, giving it all an academic feel. Many people will subconsciously be aware that references and academia signal reliability and authority so their brain will decide for them to read on. If Wikipedia, with the same information, missed out the references, the site would lose its subconscious appeal and be less successful as a result.

So, take a look at your own web site and consider its subconscious connections to your readers. What does your web site do in that fraction of a second when someone’s subconscious mind is making the decision to stay or go? As an example, consider a gardening web site; subconsciously it should be coloured green – “the gardening colour”. So if a gardening web site is not green, but uses some other, perhaps corporate colour, it sends a subconscious signal that the site is not about gardening. And before the hapless visitor has had a chance to read anything, their brain has already decided to click away. Seconds later they then justify that pre-determined action in some way to help them think they made a decision.

But the decision was not theirs; in effect it was made by the web designer who didn’t consider that immediate impact of a web site that clearly has an important influence on decisions being made at the subconscious level. In other words, the success of your web site is actually determined by factors that people are not consciously aware of.


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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones


Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
RT @SteveHeadSpeaks: Thanks to @GuidesForBrides for having @ChrisHeadMagic at #ukwedconf @MiltonHillhotel learning from the best @grahamjon - 9 hours ago
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