Sales myth

Science or fiction? Exploring the myths of sales psychology

20th Dec 2016

In a competitive world, salespeople are drawn to the latest thing that might give them advantage. But beware: when it comes to sales and psychology, not all is based on sound science. Fellows of the Association of Professional Sales, business psychologists Lance Mortimer and managing director of Sales Motivations, Bryan McCrae help separate the fads from the genuine insights.

Everyone is an armchair psychologist. We want to know what makes us tick. A whole industry of pop psychology is available to us, as we try to figure out why we act as we do. Salespeople tend to spend more time on this than most, as sales success is so dependent on the ability to influence others.

Indeed, we have met a good number of people in sales that are their own ‘experts’ on human behaviour; many citing the latest fashionable theories. Unfortunately, not all theories are soundly based.

It is important we don’t get fooled by psychological myths, for several reasons. Myths can be harmful. Promoting the wrong person into a sales management role can ruin sales performance, and is a common reason disgruntled team members look for a new job.

Myths can also lead to unforeseen consequences. If you believe you can read somebody by studying their eye movements, then you are likely to make assumptions about them that are simply not true.

Thirdly, operating on the basis of myths is unethical. Making a career decision about someone based on gut feel, or the firmness of a handshake, is likely to result in able candidates being passed over, high turnover and poor results.

This is often called the ‘horns and halo’ effect, where one positive or negative aspect about a person results in the potentially biased assumption that everything about them is positive or negative.

So, let’s take a look at some common myths. Don’t be too concerned if you believed some or all of these; many people do, but now you can set the record straight.

Myth one: NLP is scientific and based on neuroscience

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has become a very popular approach to personal development and is frequently used in sales training. It sounds very scientific and appears to be based on neuro-science. I’m now going to point out that ‘the emperor has no clothes on’, because nothing could be further from the truth. NLP was developed by two self-help gurus in the seventies who simply made up their own methods and principles after watching psychotherapists working with their clients and attempting to ‘reverse engineer’ what the psychotherapists seemed to be doing.

NLP does have some overlap with psychological theory, but it also contains much that goes against our current evidence based understanding of the brain and how learning happens. 

Whilst NLP undoubtedly has some content that some people find useful (which could well be a placebo effect), it is based on unproven and largely unverified claims that sound scientific. For example, it claims we each have a preferred ‘representational system’ for thinking about the world, and that the best way to influence someone is to mirror their preferred system, whether it is visual, tactile, auditory, or olfactory. Another unproven claim is that it is possible to identify someone’s ‘representational system’ from their eye movements.

It is also interesting to think for a moment about the title ‘NLP Master Practitioner’ and the halo effect that may result in. How many other disciplines do you know of where you would call someone a ‘Master Practitioner’ after just four days training and no exam, or , for buying an online course for £500?

The most comprehensive large scale study of research about NLP found that only 18% show results supporting NLP. Some 55% demonstrated no supporting evidence and 27% showed uncertain results. Ask yourself whether you would buy anything else if it said on the tin ‘proven by solid research to be likely to be 82% ineffective’?

Myth two: Most people use only 10% of their brain power

This is one of the most commonly believed myths and you can see why it is so enticing. If I’m only using 10% of my brain power now, imagine what I could do if there was a way to unlock the remaining 90%! Imagine what it could do to a whole sales team!

Funnily enough, this myth is often peddled by people or organisations who claim to have found the secret to helping you unlock that 90%, albeit for a small (or large) fee of course.

Much like the ‘flat earth’ belief of the past, this one has been confounded by science. FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has been a revolutionary step forwards in helping us to understand how the brain works. It lets us see, in real time and 3D, which parts of the brain are most active, by tracking blood flow and oxygen uptake. From it we can see that most of the brain is active most of the time, even while we are asleep. We can also see different specialised areas of the brain become more active when we are engaged in specific tasks, such as when attempting to read emotions in others. So it would be more true to say that most people use 100% of their brains 100% of the time.

How many other disciplines do you know of where you would call someone a ‘Master Practitioner’ after just four days training?

But don’t despair, the brain remains ‘plastic’ throughout your life, can make new connections, grow more cells and in fact is very much like a muscle, the more you use specific parts of it, the larger and more effective they become. We’ll be covering this in more detail in a future article.

Myth three: Some people are right-brained, others are left-brained

The brain is the most complex system in the body, but we do know some things for certain. For example, the right side of the brain receives inputs from, and controls, the left side of the body and vice versa. We also know that injuries to the brain show the two sides differ somewhat in their functions. In most people studied with these brain injuries, damage to the left side often results in language problems and damage to the right side often causes problems with attention. 

At some stage someone then had the notion that personality might somehow be linked to whichever side of your brain was ‘dominant’ and the myth emerged that people who use the right side of their brains most are more creative and spontaneous while those who use the left side more are more logical and analytical.

But taking on board the evidence, our friend FMRI shows for example, that if we look at language processing, different parts of the brain are involved in an integrated, federated system, with other parts of the brain involved in different aspects of the task.

So the bottom line is that there is simply no evidence to support the left-brain vs right brain myth. The most robust model of personality, by a long way, is known as ‘The Big Five’ (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) so be wary of other models that paint another picture and ask about the evidence behind them.

Myth four: What you see and remember actually happened, just as you remember it.

We are all familiar with devices and systems that record information; PCs, disk drives, video recorders, smart phones, memory sticks and the Cloud. We expect these devices to be able to accurately capture and play back whatever they have recorded, on demand, as often as we want.

Surely, that’s how our own memory works too? Of course we know that we can sometimes forget things and whether this happens or not seems to depend on how much attention the item or event got in the first place (known as the flashbulb moment), together with the emotional intensity involved.

But that’s not all there is to it. What we remember is actually a mash-up of real recollections, served up with a good helping of our personal values, beliefs, our motivators, emotions and our guesses. These guesses are themselves based on what we know (or at least think we know) about the situation, the circumstances, our previous experiences and our biases.

The bottom line is that there is simply no evidence to support the left-brain vs right brain myth

Not only that, but what we perceive in the first place is also influenced by the situation, the circumstances and our previous experiences and our biases. Even worse, we can even get ‘false memories’ of events or things that have never happened at all and experiments show this is fairly easy to illustrate with 20 to 40% of the population.

Common examples of this are witness statements from a crime scene, where independent accounts can be different or contradictory, even when witnesses have seen the same event. We also tend to ignore information that doesn’t fit with our beliefs and exaggerate or invent memories that reinforce our biases.

When in doubt, it’s always worth asking yourself: ‘What evidence is there to support this memory?’. All of this might make you wonder whether what you remember from your last customer conversation or meeting was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Lance Mortimer is a chartered business psychologist and senior talent management consultant at Level 3 Communications

Bryan McCrae is an award-winning sales psychologist and managing director at

The Association of Professional Sales provides development, standards and leadership to the profession.

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