Psychology of Pain and how to use it for Marketing


Pain sucks. When we fall down, it hurts. When we get into fights with friends or family, it hurts. When we lose a loved one, it hurts.

With each of those instances comes a different type of pain; but what they each have in common is that pain is pain, and as humans we instinctively try to avoid it.

This avoidance of pain, more commonly referred to as the psychology of pain, is at the core of all human decision-making. As consumers, we tend to make purchases only after weighing the pain of a purchase (spending time & money) against the possibility of it meeting a need (thus making us happy). As marketers, it is our job to anticipate a customer’s pain points and to unveil the layers one-by-one that consumers build around themselves to shield that pain.

To expand on the point started above, check out this excerpt from a book I am reading by Michael Singer, titled “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself”, which seeks to explain how avoidance of pain creates “layer upon layer of sensitivities” that are all linked to one source of hidden pain:

Let’s take a moment to see how these layers build up. In order to
                            avoid the pain of rejection, you work hard to maintain friendships.
                            Since you’ve seen that it is possible to get rejected, even by friends,
                            you are going to work harder and harder to avoid it. To succeed,
                            you have to be sure everything you do is acceptable to others.
                            This determines how you dress and how you act. Notice, you’re
                            no longer focused directly on rejection. Now it’s about your clothes,
                            how you walk, or what you drive. You’ve gone another layer further
                            away from the core pain.

Bare with me. I promise this ties back to your business.

If somebody comes up to you and says, “Wow, I thought you could
afford a nicer car than that!” you feel a disturbing reaction. How
could that cause pain? What’s the big deal if somebody says something
about your car? You have to ask yourself what it is that reacted in
your heart. What is that feeling? Why is that happening? People don’t
normally ask why; they just try to keep it from happening.

Reducing Buyer’s Remorse

I can’t emphasize the last point in that excerpt enough. People don’t ask why. You know who does ask why? Good marketers and salespeople.

If you haven’t read our previous article yet, “The Single Most Important Question You Should Ask An Inbound Lead”, I highly suggest that you check it out after this. But, surprise––that single most important question is “why?”. If you can get to the root cause of why a prospect is looking to make a purchase (a.k.a. unveiling the layers protecting their source of hidden pain), not only do you know how to better help them, but you give them an opportunity to justify their purchase now, so that they are less likely to feel regret or sadness later on.

Salesman: “Why are you looking to buy a camera?”
Customer: “Mine is old and I am looking for a new one.”
Salesman: “Why do you want a new one?”
Customer: “I was hoping to capture better quality photos of my son’s graduation.”
Salesman: “Why do you need better quality photos?”
Customer: “He’s moving across the country after college so I want to put these photos around the house to remind me of him.”

And there you have it. That customer is not just looking to find a camera. They are looking to find a sense of connectedness with their loved ones. By giving them a chance to explain their rationale, you learn the source of pain they are looking to avoid, which makes it easier for you to market your product accordingly and reduce remorse for them later on. This process of asking “why” is a preventative measure for reducing pain and although you will not always be face-to-face with a customer to ask them “why”, anticipating their answers and incorporating it into your copy can be just as effective.

Using the Psychology of Pain in Your Copy

Opposite to the psychology of pain is the psychology of happiness, which refers to incentivizing customers with some sort of reward or sense of happiness, such as monetary compensation or a promotion. There’s no question that happiness is a great motivating factor, but let me ask you this: What motivates you more? To avoid pain or to acquire happiness?

That’s a trick question. According to an article on Psychology Today, the truth is that in order for a person to find happiness, they must first learn to embrace pain. Michael Singer supports this point further when he states that, “Since avoiding the pain prohibits you from exploring the part of your being that is beyond that layer, real growth takes place when you finally decide to deal with the pain.”

Keep this in mind when examining the effectiveness of the following ads:


Safeguard my lifestyle? That sounds important” But, why do you need that?

Let’s try again.


Take control of your finances. Hmm, that sounds important, too.” Getting warmer…but, why?


How much do I owe? Well, that was blunt.

And there you have it. You’ve caught your prospect off guard, but more importantly you’ve hit a pain point that all of these ads are trying to reach. While the first two ads use the psychology of happiness to incentive visitors to take action, the last one uses the psychology of pain to empathize with the sensitive topic of debt. already knows why users are on their site, so they just jump straight to the next step–starting to solve that problem.

How Not To Use Psychology Of Pain

There is a fine line between motivation and manipulation. Keep this in mind when writing copy that incorporates the psychology of pain. It is effective for marketers to use fear as a motivating factor, but in order to keep it ethical they need to provide the customer with a genuine solution for overcoming that fear –– not one that paralyzes them with deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, like the one below might do.

Simply put, the ad above lacks reassurance. It addresses a sensitive painpoint but then has all this “Do you qualify” nonsense that likely leaves visitors with excess fat under their chin feeling self-conscious and possibly helpless. Instilling the psychology of pain in your ad copy invokes the consumer with a fight-or-flight response, and without an adequate solution that visitor is going to choose the latter and likely never return.

The Science Behind It

The point made earlier regarding how people are more motivated to avoid pain than to gain pleasure is actually what psychologists call the “negativity bias”. On a neurological level, the brain lights up more from a negative external stimuli than a positive one. It’s for this reason that bad news tends to resonate with us even more than good news.

In a study at the University of Chicago, John Cacioppo, Ph.D. found that showing pictures to people intended to arouse negative feelings (i.e., a mutilated face, dead animal) stimulated higher levels of electrical brain activity than when showing them pictures known to arouse positive feelings (i.e., a nice car, pizza). This surge in electrical activity implies that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by painful experiences than positive ones. This all ties back to our basic primal instincts to stay out of harm’s way. Over time, the brain has become conditioned to recognize danger or pain and respond to it accordingly.

From this, you can infer that incorporating the psychology of pain in your marketing is effective at stimulating your audience to take action. Keep in mind, however, that pain and pleasure have different meanings to different people. Running a marathon is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are people who find pleasure in doing so. So, like every other marketing principle, your success in incorporating the psychology of pain is dependent on how well you understand your target audience.


The psychology of pain is a sensitive, but effective, practice for catalyzing action from your prospective customers. As much as we all want to be happy, we want even more to be…well…not unhappy. While it’s certainly important to know what your audience wants, a less conventional approach is knowing what they want to avoid.


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As stated previously, before you can understand how to use the psychology of pain effectively, you need to first understand your target audience. Buyer personas are one of the best ways to do that. Download our free workbook, “How to Create Buyer Personas for Your Business” and get started today!