The Psychology of the CTA Button

We love to hate the CTA button. Or, do we hate to love it? During our early days at Multiple, we liked to poke fun at the CTA button. We’ll usually threw out an obnoxious “Click here moron!” and we all gave a little chuckle, but we knew it was a necessary evil.

Maybe it’s because we had trouble making the CTA button fit within our “sophisticated” design aesthetic. We would craft a beautiful layout, only to then think about where to place that “lovely” button and how to make it look like it’s part of something. But, we also needed it to stand out enough to let people know where to click. I feel we underemphasized it for the sake of design pride (that’s the emotion we feel as designers when something is forcing us to alter our design masterpiece). We are so afraid of becoming like those “other” designers that made their buttons flash and shake, with a huge arrow and large bold fluorescent green Times New Roman font. Hence, “Click here moron!”

And then, human psychology kicked in. The psychology of the CTA button isn’t new. It’s found within all of us and in every piece of marketing we’ve ever seen. There’s an idea in psychology called perceptual set theory. This theory describes the process of selecting, inferring, and interpreting, which is how we shape expectations and power motivation.

  1. Selecting - We choose (or select) what to pay attention to at any given moment in time. When we’re engaged in viewing a website, we aren’t actively listening to the clock ticking in the background. We are selective.

  2. Inferring - Our lives are a collection of memories and experiences. When we engage in similar experiences during our lives, we make assumptions or expect certain things to take place. When we view a website or landing page, we expect certain actions or information to be present.

  3. Interpreting - Finally, we take the current experience, mesh it with the experiences, and make some kind of interpretation.

Expectations vary according to how we selectively interpret the data. Tweet: Expectations vary according to how we selectively interpret the data.

People expect to see a CTA button. They don’t wonder what it is. They know what it is. It’s all part of the sale. Someone in sales will always tell you that the only way to sell something is to ask. No ask, no sale. How do you get people to click? Not with nasty green boxes, nastier typography, and a large blinking arrow. No. It’s with the message, the content, and the presentation of the information that entices the user to click that CTA button we all love to hate, or hate to love.



Let’s jump to the idea of curiosity within the realm of a digital marketing strategy. What happens when someone clicks that CTA button? Well, you’ve told them the literal thing that will happen. But there’s something about our minds that makes us curious about what happens “next”. Curiosity is strong because of the promise of what lies beyond – satisfaction. To go one step further, satisfaction isn’t the only payoff. Emotional and mental arousal in conjunction with the satisfaction of the reveal makes the experience better (#TWSS). The idea of curiosity arousal occurs when a person can almost but not quite see, hear, or interpret something.

For example, a user knows they’re clicking a button to receive an ebook, but the payoff is receiving that ebook the desire to know what’s contained inside. The content is what is going to increase brand trust and authority or hurt it. Still, curiosity drove the user to click.



We are wired to anticipate everything. We anticipate our kids waking up before the alarm goes off, having hot water when we turn on the shower, traffic during rush hour, our one-hour meeting running over 15 minutes, what that pizza is going to taste like from our favorite pizza joint, how good it’s going to feel going to bed, etc.

Here are a few facts about anticipation:

  • We expect something bigger, better, and more rewarding. Anticipation usually presents things in a grander way than they actually are.

  • Anticipating is as pleasurable as actually experiencing or receiving that which we anticipated.

  • The human mind is wired to anticipate positive experiences. Positive experiences are involuntarily retained in our mind over negative ones.

What’s the best way to build anticipation? Tell a story. Stories rock our world! Tweet: What’s the best way to build anticipation? Tell a story. Stories rock our world! We’ve always loved stories and we always will. Let your website or landing page tell the story. Present the main characters, present the problem, hint at the solution, create excitement and anticipation! Then present the CTA. Right when they are feeling that you understand them and their situation. Personal growth gurus understand this. Dave Ramsey, Tony Robbins, Michael Hyatt. They all get it. They don’t present the “CTA” at the beginning of their events. They rock your world first with whatever they have to say, build anticipation, then present you with the opportunity to satisfy your curiosity.


I want a reward!

CTAs correspond with an individual’s reward behavior. We take action based on what we perceive the reward to be. After receiving rewards for certain actions, we develop learned conditions that predispose us to take the same action that leads to the same reward.

We are bombarded with “free offers”. How many times have you offered up your email address, only to be disappointed in the content that was received? Instead of appreciating and valuing the fact that someone has given you virtual permission to access them through their own personal inbox, the digital marketing strategy has become “get that email address at any cost!”. Which has led to poor content generation and worsening online experiences for users.

We expect a reward for giving up something as protected as our email address. Don’t make us regret giving it to you!


Yes, this post is about the CTA button, kind of.

It’s more about the psychology of what makes us human and how we as designers and marketers should always be working to be smarter about how we do our jobs. There is a place in this world for quantity, but without the quality aspect of what you do, you’re just a big, fluorescent green button with a flashing arrow. Tap into the emotions that drive us to take action – curiosity, anticipation, and reward.


Want to learn more about creating a solid marketing strategy that will give you more overall structure and piece of mind? You can read The 5 Step Process For a More Structured Marketing Strategy eBook for a more in-depth discussion of these concepts and how you can begin to implement them. 


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