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Online Personality Disorders

As a web psychologist, I’m exposed to many different types of user behavior

There are many types of user behavior online, and decision-making processes. While each of us has an individual style, as a web psychologist, I've identified six primary recurring patterns of behavior I call online personality types. In this piece, I discuss the 6 pattern types, explain the psychological drivers of their behavior, and provide site optimization tips that online businesses can use to leverage each type’s unique desires:

1. The Wish Lister:

First up is the “There are so many things I want but know I can’t have” disorder. I’ve seen this pattern mostly in women and one-commerce websites. The visitor devotes extensive time and effort into carefully curating items she wants and putting them in her shopping cart. She is never buys them, however.

What causes this behavior?

Unlike a “real-life” shopping cart, an online cart promotes feelings of ownership because the user can add and remove items at any time. Those items remain in the cart even if the visitor leaves the site. She can open the cart when she wishes and view her virtual property. By having all these desired items in her own personal cart, waiting for her each time she enters the website, she almost feels like she owns them. This serves as consolation because she can’t afford to purchase them.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

One way to encourage the Wish Lister to complete a purchase is to discount one or two of the items in her cart between visits, and then greet her return with a pop-up window announcing, “It’s your lucky day! Your selected item is on sale.” This kind of unexpected personal discount helps to enforce the wishful thinking bias—the notion that what we want to be true affects what we believe to be true. It gives the customer the sense that “the Universe is giving me a sign that I should buy this product.”

2. The Brand-Oriented Visitor:

This visitor prioritizes staying up to date with the latest trends that everyone is talking about. His purchasing decision is based solely on whether a product is reputed as a top brand, and he focuses on the emotional characteristics of the product, such as colors, accessories, and attractive images. His online interaction centers on playing with the product, switching its colors, and examining different accessories that can be added to it.

What causes this behavior?

The Brand-Oriented Visitor is what we call an impulse buyer. The trigger for his purchase is emotional arousal, which is why he tries out different colors and accessories to imagine how it would feel to own the product. Rational parameters like price, practicality, and ease of use are given less weight in his purchasing decision. He replaces the logical sequence of consumer activity with an irrational moment of self-gratification, purchasing items that are neither functional nor necessary.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

Successful product pages are those that know how to communicate with the customer’s emotional system and keep it in a state of arousal. In order to promote the impulse buy, product information should be hidden behind tabs (and thus available only “on demand,” rather than proactively imposed on visitors.) The website should exploit the emotional system’s propensity to respond to subtle cues, utilizing stimuli - like colorful and captivating images - to trigger emotional arousal. This allows the Brand-Oriented Visitor to simply buy your product because of how it makes him feel, rather than reading through overly detailed information that may cause him to second-guess the purchase.

3. The Rational Visitor:

The Rational Visitor has a two-step purchasing decision process, which involves (a) rejecting the options that do not meet her most important criterion—usually price—and (b) using cost/benefit analysis to select from the remaining alternatives.

What causes this behavior?

Rational Visitors rely on objective observation and factual analysis in their decision-making process. They consider logical argument as the basis for action. For example, they wouldn’t replace their well-functioning car just because “it’s about time that we replace our car, we’ve had it for 5 years already.” They require a solid argument in order to pursue a course of action. Subjective thought and emotion have no place in their decision-making process.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

To captivate the Rational Visitor’s decision-making process, the website should provide all the information she needs to make a calculated decision. For example, a telecom site could provide detailed information about the comparative features of different cell phones (screen size, resolution, weight, etc.) so the customer feels that she is making the most informed decision possible.

4. The Maximizer:

This customer is obsessed with making the absolute best choice out of all available options. He reads through every single product listing from the top of the page to the bottom, and only then feels comfortable enough to make his selection. Regardless of whether it’s a $50,000 car or a $5 used CD, the maximizer can’t make up his mind until he has viewed every option.

What causes this behavior?

The Maximizer worries excessively about making a bad purchasing decision. The decision doesn’t have to be based on utility maximization; it can be based on appearance, safety features, or any other criterion. Often, he becomes so paralyzed with anxiety that he doesn’t buy anything; even when he does, he generally feels somewhat frustrated with his decision.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

Observation of visitor behavior on multiple ecommerce websites indicates that, when faced with a large number of options, Maximizers inevitably become frustrated and leave the website without making a purchase. Thus, businesses must intelligently limit the number of options that are presented to Maximizers, using such methods as filtering, limiting each row to five items, and providing a default or “suggested” purchase.

5. The Satisfier:

This is a customer who chooses the first product that satisfies her minimum or immediate need. These visitors start at the top of the page, begin scrolling down; they immediately stop and purchase when they find their match, regardless of how many other options are available.

What causes this behavior?

To the Satisfier, time is money. She doesn’t want to waste hours looking for the optimal option if she could be doing something else with that time. She takes action when her criteria are met. She may not settle for mediocrity; her criteria may in fact be very high. As soon as she finds an option that meets them, she is satisfied.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

One efficient method for helping a Satisfier is filtering, which allows her to drill down to the options most relevant to her needs. This is the digital equivalent of an in-store customer service representative telling her, “Let me know what color and size you need, and I will bring it to you.” Retail sites might also arrange their listings by brand, purpose or mood (romantic, sexy or fun).

6. The Hesitator:

The Hesitator fills out an online registration form or places desired items in a shopping cart, only to have second thoughts upon reaching the call-to-action (CTA) button. He may spend a significant amount of time clicking on different tabs and hovering over the CTA, as though waiting for the site to persuade him to click.

What causes this behavior?

The personality trait most likely to cause hesitation in online shopping behavior is risk avoidance. The Hesitator tries to avoid regrets over making the wrong decision, tends to be confused by an abundance of choices, and is indecisive about every aspect in his life.

How can you influence the purchasing decision?

The Hesitator needs all the reward he can get to proceed with the purchasing process. He must be completely convinced that he is making the right decision. This requires constant feedback and approval in response to every little step he takes. One way to do this is to use positive-oriented wording. For example, the subscription page might welcome him with “You made a great decision choosing Forbes” or “You are one step from joining our high-level community,” rather than the neutral language used on most sites. Positive wording has a carryover effect, so the feeling the Hesitator gets from encouraging feedback puts the entire experience in an optimistic light, making him feel good about the purchasing process. Also, the website design should limit the opportunities for him to rethink his decision. Reduce the number of checkout pages, or remove the ability to return to the previous page, once the process has begun.


The game has changed. Your next customer will research and evaluate your products through web sites and online networks long before your salespeople get involved. In fact, a call to your salesperson may be the last step in the buyer’s journey, significantly limiting the influence and expertise that previously influenced the buying discussion. As the buying process moves online, salespeople are getting less face time with clients, and thus lack insight into which of their prospects are showing the strongest buying signals.

To succeed in this new digital climate, smart businesses are adapting and realizing the necessity of reading and responding to the “digital body language” of their prospects. This new body language is revealed through online activities such as browsing behavior, click-through rates, hesitation, scrolling and more. Tracking this behavior enables companies to quickly identify their buyers’ psychological needs and better assist them through the decision making process.