Why Your Brain Hates Selling

Most of us have strong opinions about sales, and often they aren’t positive.

Most of the time, we can avoid having to actively sell something simply by working for someone else. But when you have your own business or work for yourself, sales are unavoidable. Many solopreneurs avoid it assiduously, and some even go back to working for someone else rather than learning how to self-promote and sell.

But it may be that the biggest problem with sales isn’t a lack of knowledge or skills—it’s that our brains are biased against sales and selling ourselves, personality quirks aside. Here’s why self-promotion tends to feel so uncomfortable but how to do it (less painfully) anyway.

Related: How I Came Around To Self-Promotion As An Introvert


It might not be fair, but salespeople are often seen as one of the least trusted of all professionals. In a recent Gallup poll, only 9% of respondents said they think car salespeople are ethical and honest. Of the 22 professions Gallup sampled, only members of Congress had a lower score.


We know that salespeople sometimes make false comparisons or give only a portion of the truth in order to clinch a deal. We’re aware that psychology is routinely deployed in order to get us to buy, even when we don’t want or need the product. We’ve all felt conned by a salesperson or fallen prey to some scheme. So when faced with having to sell ourselves, many of us are terrified by the prospect of having to deceive others just to make a sale or land a new client. And one reason why is because of the phenomenon that psychologists call “group attribution error.”

Group attribution error is a common bias that leads us to believe that the characteristics of one individual represent those of a whole group—whether that means grouping people by race, gender, or even occupation. In the case of selling, our beliefs about salespeople color our impressions of the whole activity and everyone who does it. And it doesn’t help that most people who decide to work for themselves have little firsthand experience in sales to begin with but plenty of vivid recollections of unsavory salespeople as consumers. So to distinguish ourselves from our negative views of salespeople we disavow it altogether, even though that limits our income.

How to beat it: To overcome this bias, you need to find positive examples that contradict the beliefs you already hold. This takes effort, but if you can locate a few examples of sales strategies—and the people who use them—that aren’t scummy, you’ll not only have a new model to try but a chance to shift your mind-set about sales. Keep in mind that self-promotion isn’t inherently sneaky; you can do it well and still retain your integrity. If you can show your brain that the methods make the real difference, you’ll stop seeing sales as a thing that “people like me don’t do.”

In your hunt for more congenial approaches to selling your work, remind yourself that while big businesses have budgets for slick ads, that’s not remotely the kind of marketing you’d be able to do even if you wanted to. Because independents lack those resources, they have to find creative, and often more genuine, ways to sell.

You can also consider hiring a business coach who can help you home in on a more natural style of selling—so you can be yourself rather than putting on a false persona. A good business coach can also help you articulate your values, so you know where the boundaries are when selling.


If only that were the only way our brains tend to resist self-promotion. There’s at least one other. Psychologists have found that we also tend to overestimate how much others are paying attention to us. This is known as the “spotlight effect.” We think people are watching our every move and silently judging us.

What’s more, the spotlight effect is often intensified when we’re selling our work to others, because the sales experience often feels so unnatural to begin with. In situations where we’re already hyperconscious of our behavior, we assume others are watching us closely even more. In one study back in 2000, researchers asked college students to wear a profoundly uncool Barry Manilow T-shirt around campus, making them feel highly self-conscious. You can probably guess what happened.

“Because we are so focused on our own behavior” in situations like these, the researchers concluded, “it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much–or how little–our behavior is noticed by others. Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others.”

So when you pair our fear of looking distrustful (group attribution error) with being self-conscious (spotlight effect), it makes us deeply reluctant to engage in any behavior that looks or feels anything like sales.

How to beat it: Suck it up and wear the Barry Manilow T-shirt more often, even if that means throwing a sweatshirt on once in awhile (metaphorically speaking). In other words, take small steps. When it comes to the spotlight effect, the researchers also found that if we repeat a behavior over and over again, we can reduce and even reverse feelings of self-consciousness. This means that the more we engage in sales-like behaviors, the more comfortable we’ll become.

Which sounds intuitive enough, right? “Fake it until you make it” might not be an ironclad strategy for every aspect of your career, but it can help you get over the initial discomfort of self-promotion and selling. And if you’re going to succeed—especially as your own boss—that’s got to happen sooner than later.


A version of this article, Your Brain Hates Self-Promotion As Much As You Do—Try These Workarounds originally appeared on Fast Company.