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  • Writer's pictureChris Peterson

Learn How Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt Influence Customers' Purchasing Decisions

stairs going into fog representing the confusion of FUD in purchase decisions
Joe Beck Courtesy of Unsplash

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) are well-known purchase motivators. They paint negative emotions customers want to resolve with your products. Less known is how these emotions play differently with egalitarian and positional customers. Invoking these attributes can steer your business to one group or the other, which may or may not be the market you need. The promise of certainty is a case in point.

The Idea

Positional and egalitarian customers process the need for certainty differently. Positional customers have a strong predisposition to maintain an orderly environment, so they are more sensitive to uncertainty. Intolerance of ambiguity continuously drives positional customers to increase certainty.

Egalitarian customers will tend to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. This is part and parcel of their inherent desire to remake the present to create a better future. The future will always be less certain when you are continuously re-engineering the present, so uncertainty is more natural in an egalitarian mindset.

Positional customers are more certain about the future because they strive to conserve the present rather than trying to reinvent it. The future is more certain because it shouldn’t be very different from the present. As a result, ambiguity and uncertainty are threats because they represent the potential for change and disruption.

The idea of uncertainty can also be linked to the feeling of fear, which was explored in a previous article. Fear makes both egalitarian and positional customers more positional, uniting the two mindsets, even if only temporarily. So while uncertainty may provoke a stronger reaction from positional customers, if it borders on fear, it activates both groups.

The Evidence

A team of scholars led by social psychology professor John T. Jost reviewed decades of research into the cognitive attributes of positionals. Their summary, or “meta-study,” demonstrates that positionals exhibit strong responses when confronted with uncertainty. This is proven across studies that invoked ambiguous literary texts, job insecurity, change at work, new technology, work innovation, and more. All of these inputs have the potential for instability or change, which positional customers will push against until stability is resolved.

A separate research review led by political psychology professor Aleksandra Cichocka looked at the differences in grammar usage by egalitarians and positionals. This included analyzing tendencies toward structure, orderliness, and uncertainty. In reviewing a series of studies, the team found that positionals used significantly more nouns in their language than egalitarians. They postulate that this tendency reflects a desire for a more direct, immediate, familiar, and less ambiguous communication style. In addition, the higher incidence of verbs and adjectives by egalitarians makes communication less certain and more complex.


Given how powerful uncertainty can motivate product purchase, its application is widespread. Resolving uncertainty is at the core of such products as home security, insurance, financial services, healthcare, and more. Uncertainty can also frame other products in the minds of egalitarian and positional customers to varying degrees. For example, a car brand known for reliability can deliver greater certainty. The question is, to what effect?

When exploring the idea of uncertainty, it appears to be a stronger motivator for positional customers than for egalitarian ones. So an industry or business focusing on this attribute may naturally attract more positional customers. But what about the relationship with egalitarian customers? As noted above, when uncertainty borders on fear, you may activate more egalitarian customers.

There isn’t any available data on this, but strong product guarantees may appeal more to positional customers than egalitarian ones. This wouldn’t mean that egalitarian customers don’t care about guarantees - it may just be less critical in the overall product evaluation. egalitarian customers have an inherent tolerance for risk, so guarantees are less necessary. This is one reason egalitarian customers are the prime target for innovative new products.

Knowing if certainty is essential for selling your products depends on which market (or both) is buying what you have. If your customers skew positional, focusing on certainty will help you convert more customers. It may be as simple as expressing stronger confidence in your offering with assurances about product quality. Your egalitarian customers will value these attributes, but they may not be primary motivations to buy. The important thing is to know which group is buying your products more so you can emphasize the attributes they seek to make a product decision. 


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