Why Do People Do What They Do? Why Do People Buy What They Buy?

Why do you do what you do?

Why do you buy what you buy?

Why does anybody do anything?

In a study in the late nineties, a group of researchers wanted to answer this question. They wanted to know if we know why another person did the stuff that they did.

In other words, the study was about how good are we at guessing another person’s motivation.

In the study the researchers took people that knew each other very well. These were siblings, people that have been good friends for years, and couples in long term relationships and marriages. People that, by any measure, should know each other pretty well.


The results of the study were surprising. About 95% of the time people couldn’t name why the other person performed the behaviours they displayed. Only one in twenty times did they get it right.

It is easy for us to see these days what people do, what they click on, what they listen to and watch, what they like or dislike, where they are, and of course, what they are buying.

We know more than ever about the what, but we don’t know the why.

Again, and again we see the failure of predictive biases. We saw it fail spectacularly in the previous US election, where just about every poll suggested Donald Trump only had a 15%-30% chance of winning.

You see, what we think people will do, what they say they will do, and what they actually do, isn’t quite the same thing.

This reminds me of that line at the bottom of every investment fact sheet, ‘Past performance does not guarantee future returns.’

We should all tattoo that on our forearms.

It is quite trendy right now to base marketing solidly on big data, analytics and stacks of spreadsheets, but humans aren’t numbers, and not one of us would describe ourselves as average.

If close couples only get it right 1 in 20 times, how will we get it right by looking at clicks?

So, why do people do what they do? That is the big question, even though we pretend otherwise people aren’t rational beings, we are highly emotional beings. We aren’t very logical either when push comes to shove, we make crazy decisions based on hunches and trying to run with the cool kids.

Human beings are complex, and a little mad.

Then how do we, as entrepreneurs then figure out what people will do next? How do we figure out what they want, and why they want it?

In order to know this, we need to move beyond data and dive into the depths of people, and embrace the ambiguous, the intuitive and the mysterious.

“The more high tech we become, the more high touch we need to be to survive” Leonard Sweet, futurist.

Language that doesn’t seem to fit in a big data world needs to become part of our vocabulary - love, compassion, fear, intuition, gut, passion, anger, and trust.

When we love our customers* (yes I used the ‘L’ word), we will want to make something that will make their lives better. In order to truly know someone, we need to be in relationship with them - and God knows, relationships are tough and messy and difficult. However, relationships are also beautiful, meaningful, and life-giving.

Even if then we only get it right 1 in 20 times, we have built a solid foundation, a trust, a deep knowing that we’ve got their back.

The invitation here, in this week’s article, is to dive deep, to get know, to do the work that builds the relationships and the trust that is so necessary in a Cambridge Analytical World.

Get skin in the game, build true trust.


* or as Seth Godin will put it ‘those we seek to serve’.

About the author: Pierre du Plessis

Pierre du Plessis is a business consultant, creative director, writer and world-class public speaker. In a chaotic world Pierre helps people build meaningful lives, and businesses do work that matters. Pierre du Plessis speaks on how to build conscious businesses in chaotic times.

Pierre is currently the CEO of his passion project, HumanWrites, an organisation that gets storybooks to kids who need them. Pierre is also an educator at DUKE CE University and has spoken at BMW, KFC, Adcock Ingram, FNB, Nedbank, and has been featured on TEDx stages numerous times. He has worked in fashion, advertising, trend analyses and branding. Pierre leads a contemplative community of faith in the heart of Cape Town, is a published author and has received the Desmond Tutu Gerrit Brand literature prize

He believes he is the love child of Gertrude Stein and Jason Bourne.

He lives in Cape Town with his wife, two kids, and his iPhone. For more information, visit www.thisispierreduplessis.com.