Cognitive biases and online persuasion

Recently, I started working on the Wheel of Persuasion by Bart Schutz. The Wheel of Persuasion is a tool that aims to provide a comprehensive overview of practical and proven persuasion techniques. Being part of the Online Persuasion Knowledge circle from Online Dialogue, I contribute a little by helping Bart translating our knowledge of cognitive biases into practical online persuasion strategies. I thought it would be useful to explain here what cognitive biases are, and to provide an example of how you can use this knowledge for online persuasion and conversion optimization.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are “deviations in judgment that occur in particular situations that lead to perceptual distortions, inaccurate judgments, illogical interpretations and thus irrationality” (from Wikipedia). They occur because in most cases when people have to make a decision, they don’t spend much time thinking about their decision and just go with the option that seems most attractive or appealing to them. Nowadays, it is generally assumed that we humans have two “thinking systems”:

  1. System 1 which operates automatically and quickly, with little or no cognitive effort (i.e. is more intuitive).
  2. System 2 which relates to more effortful processing of information, whereby you think a lot about a problem (e.g. complex questions), and you generally use a lot of concentration to arrive at a decision.

System 1 and system 2 are both active (when we are awake). System 1 runs automatically dealing with most situations and system 2 runs in the background while using only a fraction of its capacity. Now, our system 1 generates suggestions for our system 2, suggestions such as impressions, beliefs, intuition, and feelings. When all things go well (which is most of the time), system 2 adopts these suggestions from our system 1. So, you generally rely on the suggestions (beliefs, feelings, impressions) from your system 1 and in most cases that works just fine for you. However, sometimes our system 1 runs into trouble and it can’t generate a proper suggestion. For example, when asked to compute 17×24  system 1 will call upon system 2 for help (i.e. system 2 directs more attention towards the problem, and more cognitive effort).  So, basically our system 2 becomes active when we see something unusual (say jumping lamps, flying cars, etc.). Perhaps you know the stroop tasks, where you are required to state the colors words are written in (e.g. blue red) This is difficult for us because our system 1 wants to say “red” “blue” whereas our system 2 wants to say “blue” “red”.

So, one of the main functions of your system 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions suggested by your system 1. However, it only becomes active when our system 1 runs into problems (i.e. doesn’t know the answer, or when something unusual happens that disrupts our system 1 thinking). Therefore, in most cases we rely on our fast, intuitive system 1 when making our every day decisions. Although this generally works very well for us, we are also prone to make some mistakes every now and again. These mistakes are referred to as “cognitive biases“.

A well-known example that nicely illustrates the workings of our system 1 and 2 (and that shows our vulnerability to cognitive biases) is the bat and the ball problem.

A bat and a ball together cost €1.10. The bat is €1 more expensive than the ball. How much does the ball costs?

Most people, when asked to quickly state an answer, will say €0.10 because they subtract the price of the bat (€1) from the total price (€1.10), leaving €0.10. However, the correct answer is €0.05 (do the math yourself). In other words, the fast, intuitive (and false) system 1 answer is €0.10, the more effortful (and correct) system 2 answer is €0.05. Another “famous” example is Müller-Lyer illusion. Two sets of arrows are presented and you are asked to state which one is longer, A or B. In fact, both arrows have the same length. However, the positioning of the “fins” creates an illusion of one being longer than the other (i.e. arrows with fins pointing inwards are seen as shorter than with fins pointing outwards; see for example here).

These examples illustrates that when we don’t spend a lot of effort in thinking about a problem, we rely on our system 1 to make a decision. €0.10  feels intuitively correct so we go for that answer, or the fins serve as a clue to which arrow is longer so we go for that arrow. However, when we spend more time thinking about the problem (when someone says €0.10 is incorrect or when someone states both arrows are of similar length) and we actually start calculating or measuring it, than we use our system 2 thinking and we (most likely) arrive at the correct answer.

Practical applications for conversion optimization

So, how can we use this knowledge to persuade your customers to buy your products? First of all, there are many different cognitive biases and each of them offers tools to persuade your customers to buy from you. The afore mentioned wheel of persuasion will contain many of the cognitive biases and will provide examples of how to utilize them for your online business. Second, I think the system 1 versus system 2 way of thinking provides a very useful framework to arrive at decisions on how to optimize your online persuasion goals. In other words, I think we as marketeers should focus more on system 1 decision making than on system 2. Remember, when your customers make decisions, they probably spend some time thinking about what they want to buy from you (effortful system 2 thinking). However, when they are in your online shop they have to make various other decisions related to the decision whether to buy or not (e.g. add extra items to shopping cart, cheaper or more expensive version of your product, what kind of delivery method to choose, where to focus attention on in the webshop, etc.). Thus, cognitive biases shows us that you have to make sure the shopping experience itself is as easy as possible for your customers (i.e. reduce the cognitive effort as much as possible). Finally, an easy shopping experience also means that you can facilitate decision making in such a way that your customers are more likely to buy the products you want them to buy. For example, some cognitive biases can influence how your customers perceive the prices of your product (e.g. we have a tendency to prefer middle options; we use the first price we see as a reference point for judgments of other prices). Knowing how to use these biases to influence price perception may result in your customers opting for a product with a bigger profit margin (e.g. offering your most expensive item first influences your customers decision what product to buy).

Below is a more general example (that refers to the more basic cognitive biases) that illustrates the potential for using cognitive biases to persuade your customers.

Credibility. Credibility of your online shop is an important aspect of online shopping experience so you have to make sure your persuasive message is perceived as credible as possible. Next to “just being credible” and trying to obtain various credibility certificates, you can also use some “cognitive tricks” that will make your customers believe that your persuasive message is more credible. For example, maximize contrast (our system 1 says that when something stands out, it is more credibility), use bright blue or red colors (our system 1 says these colors imply credibility), use simple language (our system 1 says that formulating familiar ideas in difficult language means low credibility), and put your message in a verse or rhyme (our system 1 says that when words rhyme they must be true). One remark about rhyming, marketeers have been using rhyme for a long time because they assume that rhymes are better remembered. Now you know that it not only leads to better memory for a brand, but also adds to its credibility because of the cognitive bias “rhyming signals trustworthiness”.

What do you think? Are you vulnerable to cognitive biases? And what kind of biases (or maybe “tricks”) do you use for your business?

For more information on cognitive biases, you may want to read Daniel Kahneman’s new book: Thinking, fast and slow. Also, sign up for the “wheel of persuasion”. If you want to know more about cognitive biases and how you can benefit from using them for your business, contact me at dirk [at] betterchange [dot] nl. Also, check out my other blog posts here or learn more about