How to use cognitive biases for persuasion & more conversions, aka, a modern introduction to ethical brain-hacking for marketers tired of “bro-science” persuasion. 

“George, uh, what’s a cognitive bias again?” 

… Glad you asked. A cognitive bias is a consistent and therefore exploitable error in human judgment that’s proven by science. A built-in, decision-making flaw. In other words, something like a universal brain fart that gets triggered when specific conditions are met. 🙂 

Some of the things you’ll learn:

  • Why is the word cognitive bias suddenly such a huge trend? You’ll learn exactly what a cognitive bias is, and why you should care about cognitive biases in marketing and especially e-commerce marketing.
  • We’ll go way beyond basic persuasion tools like social proof, loss aversion, and using discounts. You’ll learn the exact, advanced neuromarketing techniques top marketers use to generate desire, strengthen product benefits, and increase the value of their offering.
  • Then we’ll get into specifics. You’ll learn how to add 17 cognitive biases and psychological triggers into your persuasion arsenal, including the clustering illusion, the contrast effect, the framing effect, anchoring, the empathy gap, unit biases, the extension neglect bias, and many, many more. 
  • You will receive actionable ways to apply these cognitive biases in your marketing, plus links to advanced resources to continue your learning, including a complete list of psychological triggers (studying them is optional but very highly recommended). 

Hey – did you miss the webinar?

The Advanced E-Commerce Creative Optimization webinar is the perfect complement to the science-proven techniques you’ll learn in this post.

"What may seem weird, aberrant behavior is deeply ingrained into our brain."

Persuasion is a dirty word. 

That’s because the human brain is a dark, mysterious place. Since the dawn of time, people have struggled to figure out how the brain works, how we make decisions, how we are driven to action.

There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific research, anecdotal “evidence,” and lousy psychology, but there have also been some serious analytical attempts to crack persuasion and decision-making. 

A semi-famous gentleman named Daniel Kahneman (Ph.D.), psychologist and economist, has made one such attempt through his vast and exciting body of work. 

As early as 1972, he introduced the applied psychology concept of cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a universal and consistent error in human judgment. When certain conditions are met, we experience a lapse in judgment and stop acting rationally. 

The keywords are universal and consistent. 

What may seem weird, aberrant behavior is deeply ingrained into our brain and can be triggered by command. And yes, that includes you too, chief. 

What’s super interesting is that cognitive scientists, social scientists, and experts from the field of behavioral economics have discovered an avalanche of new cognitive biases over the last few years.

This research has vast implications for entrepreneurship, marketing, and of course, e-commerce.

Why Should You Care About Cognitive Biases In E-Commerce Marketing?

Because you can use a cognitive bias to persuade others, often without them even realizing it (more on that in the next few sections), repeatedly, like clockwork.

This means that if we learn how to use cognitive biases for persuasion, we can easily increase our conversion rates without additional financial cost. Therefore, cognitive biases, properly leveraged, can significantly boost our top and bottom line.

There are massive implications for all sorts of for-profit companies, including B2B and B2C firms, consultants, salespeople, marketers, and even solo entrepreneurs. 

But the potential impact is even more explosive for high transaction volume organizations, like software companies and e-commerce brands, because even slight conversion increases are scalable.

Put simply, in the hands of a good strategist, cognitive biases are powerful conversion optimization tools.   

Which Cognitive Biases Will We Cover In This Guide?

We’re going to go through a list of 17 cognitive biases. That list is certainly not exhaustive (there are hundreds of cognitive biases) but knowing how to apply even half of this list’s biases will put you in the top 1% of marketers from a behavioral psychology perspective. 

Here’s the full list of the cognitive biases we’ll cover.

  1. Anchoring.
  2. Attentional Bias.
  3. Ambiguity Effect.               
  4. Availability Cascade.
  5. Backfire Effect.                           
  6. Bandwagon Effect.
  7. Belief Bias.
  8. Clustering Illusion.
  9. Confirmation Bias.
  10. Mere Exposure Effect.
  11. Status Quo Bias.
  12. Contrast Effect.
  13. Empathy Gap.
  14. Framing Effect.
  15. The Extension Neglect Bias
  16. Humor Effect.
  17. Post-purchase rationalization.

Seventeen, science-proven opportunities to increase your conversion rate and stop wasting resources on “bro-science” persuasion, magic copywriting phrases, and unproven hacks. 

Every bias will come with a layman’s explanation, a linked scientific reference for you to dig through (optional, yet recommended), plus practical, actionable takeaways you can apply immediately in an e-commerce brand.

The Anchoring Cognitive Bias

"Any price negotiation is grounded in the initial price given."

Anchoring is a cognitive bias where an individual depends too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments during decision making.

So imagine you’re shopping for a product with an unknown price. Then the salesperson gives you the product’s price. Any further negotiation you’ll have will be grounded in that initial price they gave you, even though that price may be well above the product’s actual market price. That’s the power of anchoring in a nutshell.

Anchoring is an extremely well-documented cognitive bias, and it’s tough to avoid. What’s more, anchoring’s effects are significant even if the anchor is seemingly irrelevant.

For example, a study published on the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Explaining the enigmatic anchoring effect: Mechanisms of selective accessibility,” conducted the following experiment.

Students were asked a series of questions. First, they were asked whether Gandhi died before or after the age of 9 (group 1), or before or after age 140 (group 2).

The answer to both questions is obvious, but what’s astonishing is that when the students were asked the follow-up question of what age did Gandhi actually die, the two groups guessed significantly differently (group 1 guessed, on average, the age of 50 vs group 2’s average age of 67).

Likewise, a customer’s willingness to pay is proven to increase even when the anchor is seemingly irrelevant. For example, what someone paid for a different product, which makes no logical sense.

How to make it yours:

  • On product pages, show the original price before the discounted price (left to right).
  • Feature a much more expensive, premium product option than the one you want to sell. Some people will take it because some people always like having the best, but those that don’t will be much more amenable to the real price, as it will look affordable compared to the more expensive option.
  • If your price is more accessible, consider using it as a selling point through a comparison. Anchor them to the most expensive alternative, then show how much of a better value your offer is. In other words, highlight the difference in cost savings AND the parity in product features and benefits (and if not parity per se, frame the two products as “not meaningfully different”).

The best study to learn more about the anchoring cognitive bias: Anchoring Effects on Consumers’ Willingness-to-Pay and Willingness-to-Accept, By Itamar Simonson, Aimee Drolet, 2003.

The Attentional Cognitive Bias

In short, the attentional bias refers to the human tendency to block out data and focus on the stimuli that threaten us or otherwise move us emotionally. 

In other words, the more something touches us, the more we pay attention to it.

At the same time, when we make decisions, we tend to overlook alternative options or possible outcomes because we become focused on the few options we have in front of us.

The scientific explanation for attentional bias is simple. Our ancestors that focused their attention on the risky things happening around them probably survived more often than those who didn’t.

Back then, being highly anxious may have even been a good thing, and there’s evidence that highly anxious people experience the attentional biases more intensely.

Today’s online shopping is not quite a life-and-death situation, but it can still be anxiety-inducing for many of your potential customers.

So the way to leverage the attentional cognitive bias is two-fold. First, to ease shopping anxieties and second, to guide attention towards the conversion goal.

How to make it yours:

  • To ease anxieties use trust symbols on your landing pages. Trust symbols include but are not limited to positive reviews, testimonials, PR mentions, guarantees, secure shopping and website security symbols. 
  • To guide attention towards the conversion goal, use buttons instead of links, as they drew more attention. To maximize attention use high contrast colors for your button so it stands out visually. Here’s a tool I use for ensuring color contrast
  • Feature multiple calls to action, especially in a longer form page, as this will increase the probability of them noticing and engaging with it. They may not be ready the first time they see it, but they might be after they’ve scrolled through most or all of your content). 
  • Use cross-channel retargeting and consistent content marketing (social media, blogging, etc.). The more often users see your offer, the more likely they will notice it and engage with it. 

Learn more about the attentional cognitive bias in this study: Emotional Stroop task: effect of word arousal and subject anxiety on emotional interference

The Ambiguity Effect

The ambiguity effect is straightforward to understand. We are more likely to select an option who’s chance of a good outcome is known than an option who’s chance of a good outcome is unknown.

It makes sense. We don’t like uncertainty, so we will avoid it when we can.

The ambiguity effect may be the reason why it’s so hard to try out new things in many companies (“we’ve always done X this way!”). It almost certainly is the reason why so many people put their money in bank deposits as opposed to the stock market, even though the stock market is almost guaranteed to have a much bigger return over time.

It’s also why it’s usually better to be upfront about shipping delays (COVID related or not), setting clear and transparent return policies, and so forth. There’s less ambiguity this way.

How to make it yours:

  • Transparent policies, shipping times, product FAQs, package details (i.e., with batteries vs. without batteries) are a must for all e-commerce companies.
  • It’s important to be clear about payments and listing the total price instead of breaking it down into subitems such as shipping and handling that the user has to calculate.
  • Call to action copy should be specific and descriptive of what the button does. For example, if the button takes the user to the checkout, don’t use “add to cart” text and vice versa.
  • Be thorough in the information you provide in product pages. Design the page for mobile and impulse buyers, yes, but plan ahead for higher involvement users who want to know everything about the product before buying. The way to do so is to make the page usable with minimum interaction / clicks / time spent and have the option for more information (such as expandable text widgets) available for the users who need it.

Learn more about the ambiguity effect in Kellog’s literature review: The Ambiguity Aversion Literature: A Critical Assessment.,

The Availability Cascade

If you’ve ever been into fitness, you may have heard of the sarcastic term “bro science.” “Bro science” is fitness slang for popular bodybuilding information that’s not backed by science. 

The availability cascade is the scientific term for a process that’s very much alike to “bro science.” It describes how belief in something becomes more and more plausible as it gets repeated in public discourse… even though it’s basically BS. 

In other words, if you repeat something enough, people will (eventually) believe it, even if it’s not true.

The availability cascade has implications well beyond the news media, politics, and public discourse. It affects all social networks we’re connected to, including social media, professional groups, non-profit organizations, and more. 

Things get very interesting when we take personal interest into account. People may push for certain beliefs because they serve their self-interest, and if they do so effectively, these beliefs may become common wisdom, even though they’re not necessarily true.

A great example are copywriters – the charming “bro- scientists-in-chief” of the marketing world. For over a hundred years, copywriters have pushed the self-serving idea that a campaign’s success (or lack thereof) is pretty much reliant on the persuasiveness of the copy. 

But anyone that’s advertised with big budgets knows that’s not true. Copywriting is certainly important but it is certainly is not the only important (or even most important) element of a campaign.

 But let’s go back to using the availability cascade cognitive bias as an e-commerce company.

How to make it yours:

  • Think full-funnel, but execute on one consistent message. In other words, whether you’re advertising for sales or just brand awareness, whether your ad is video or photography based, find the single, core message of the brand and make it part of every communication aspect. If your core message is “the best performance [product],” hammer that point across all assets. Eventually people will take it for granted.
  • Multiple channels, one message. It’s hard to crack multiple acquisition channels. But it’s much easier to retarget people effectively as support to your primary acquisition funnel. The key here, again, is message consistency. The more frequently people your message, and the more channels you reach them through, the more they’ll start to believe the product claims you make. 

To get a deeper understanding of the availability cascade, check out Pierre Lemieux’s article (Quebec University): “Following the Herd: Why do some ideas suddenly become popular, and then die out just as quickly?”

The Backfire Effect

Have you noticed how much of a hard time people have in changing their minds when talking about politics and sports? Perhaps even conspiracy theories? 

Even though you may stack contrasting evidence right in front of their eyes, people usually shut you off and double-down in what they believe.

That cognitive bias is called the backfire effect. It’s especially annoying in holiday family meetings. Essentially, we tend to have a very hard time changing our minds, and we’re all slightly self-delusional to some extent. 

As Carl Sagan once wrote, “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

At the same time, don’t try too hard to change people’s minds. You’ll piss them off, and you will likely fail. 

How to make it yours:

  • When advertising, reach people with messages they can agree with, before asking them to show you their preference. For example, before you ask them to agree that your shapewear is the best shapewear of all time, tell them that shapewear is like makeup, it makes women beautiful, and women deserve to feel beautiful and loved.
  • The same is true even if you have a less mainstream contrarian approach. No matter what you claim is, to increase the your advertising impact, break down your argument in sub arguments people can agree with, then lead them to your final conclusion. The question you want to answer is, “What must people believe in to make my product claim an obvious, no-brainer?”     
  • On a more introspective note, allow yourself, as an individual, and collectively, as an organization, the luxury of being able to change your mind. The first step is to be aware of how the human mind works, to be mindful of the backfire effect and confirmation bias (coming up next). Of course, you either own or represent a brand, so there’s a certain perspective you’re committed to serving. But that doesn’t mean you can allow yourself a nice 20% of exploring uncharted territory, trying out new projects, new advertising ideas, new products. 

Here’s a beautiful 2016 research paper on the backfire effectThe elusive backfire effect: mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence.

The Confirmation Bias is the Backfire Effect's Evil Twin

"The best example of confirmation bias is US politics."

The backfire effect is our internal defense mechanism when the information we disagree with reaches us. Confirmation bias is the backfire effect’s evil twin: It’s our natural tendency to actively seek information that validates what we already believe in.

In other words, fragile as we are, we actively seek to surrender our thinking to the beliefs of an echo-chamber. 

The best example is US politics.

I am not a US citizen, so I only follow US politics because I find them fascinating from a psychosocial perspective. What I’ve observed, and it was more true than ever in the 2020 election, is that left-wing voters and right-wing voters experience a completely different version of reality. 

I urge you to spend 5 minutes (that’s more than enough!) in a right-wing community and compare and contrast the news being shared, the discussions people have, with what you will find in a left-wing community. 

It’s day and night. And it all has to do with confirmation bias. People have a preconceived notion of how the world works and they will do everything they can to sustain it. 

How is the confirmation bias relevant for e-commerce? Let’s take a look at a few ideas. 

How to make it yours:

  • Reaffirm customer decisions during the customer journey. So, for example, make sure you tell them what a great, smart decision they made in your first welcome email. 
  • Subtle word choices like “Well done” or “Excellent choice” go a long way during the checkout process to and will ultimately help coax the conversion.
  • Building a community (very hard to do) is another excellent way to use confirmation bias because people will revalidate each other’s beliefs, almost like a mini “brand echo-chamber” for your company. According to Facebook IQ research, people organize themselves in communities based on shared expertise, shared passions, shared beliefs, and shared situations. Specifically, they’re more attracted to the benefits a community offers than the concept of a community per se.

Deeply understand the confirmation bias through this study: Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises.

The Belief Cognitive Bias

If confirmation bias is the backfire effect’s evil twin, then the belief bias has to be the cousin. 

In short, the belief bias is our tendency to judge the strength of an argument based on the conclusion’s plausibility, rather than how strongly the individual arguments support the conclusion.

Another way to think of the belief bias is this. The validity of an argument, any argument, is independent of the truth of its conclusion.

This means you can support a truth with lies or inaccuracies or support something false with real, accurate facts.

And it also means that even true data may be insufficient to convince someone if the conclusion (or product claim) does not sound feasible. 

There are a lot of factors that can heighten the effect of the belief bias. Specifically, time pressure can heighten its effects.

So if you ask people to make a decision right now, without time to think, it’s far more likely that they won’t logically explore whether there’s a valid relationship between arguments and conclusion.

Please don’t use the second tip for evil:

  • Even if your product performs excellently and has all the great features of the world, it may be preferable to temper down the claims than exaggerate them. This makes the claims sound more feasible and doesn’t overwhelm or alarm the consumer. 
  • In instances when you control the customer journey from start to finish, such as in the context of a long-form, direct response video sales letter, you can use the belief bias to enhance your claims’ credibility. For example: People believe Harvard is a trustworthy source, so what Harvard says is generally true. Therefore, you could, for instance, reference a Harvard study about the positive effects of a certain nutrient (that happens to be part of your supplement formula), to increase the perceived value of your formula. Even though Harvard obviously wouldn’t have studied the specific supplement formula, viewers would mentally connect the dots anyway because of the belief bias (Harvard = good, so formula with this nutrient = good). 

More on the belief bias: The belief-bias effect in the production and evaluation of logical conclusions.

The Bandwagon Effect

If you’ve ever adopted speaking patterns, wore certain clothing, or generally behaved in a way because you saw everyone else doing it, then you’ve jumped on the bandwagon.

The bandwagon effect is nothing more than our tendency to conform to what everybody else’s is doing. Humans are highly susceptible to peer pressure. It’s groupthink at its best (or worst, depending on who you ask).

There’s no better example of the bandwagon effect than the infamous queues (in some cases, actual camping sites) outside Apple Stores any time they release a new piece of gadgetry.

When others do it, it’s cool to do it, so we go crazy and want to do it too (almost like we’re still part-chimp on the inside, isn’t it?). 

How to make the bandwagon effect yours:

  • Who’s got the eyeballs in your space? Who does your audience listen to? Who do they think is cool? Hire them to promote your products, and amplify their promotions yourself. In other words, influencer marketing is an excellent way to use the bandwagon effect as an e-commerce company.
  • The same is true of PR. Every new publication that endorses you, and there are ways to pay your way into being endorsed (though it’s always better if you have a real story), every piece of “buzz” reinforces the bandwagon effect around your eshop and brand. 
  • Encouraging reviews by customers is another sneaky way to simulate a bandwagon effect. The best way to ask for reviews is right after they’ve received the product. Then be open about the great reviews you get, use them on your social and other digital campaigns. Just be careful because this can be overdone, and always touting your horn can seem obnoxious.

Check R Scmhitt-Beck’s article on the Bandwagon Effect to learn moreBandwagon Effect, Online Wiley Library. 

An Introduction to the Clustering Illusion

If you’re anywhere close to making marketing and financial decisions, it’s important to be aware of the clustering illusion, so you check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Simply put, the clustering illusion is the unfortunate human tendency to mistake randomness for “patterns.” I have no scientific evidence to back this, but I believe creative people are more prone to the clustering illusion. That’s because a big part of creativity is pattern recognition.

Regardless, it’s a human bias we should all be wary of, whether we’re responsible for approving AB test results, funding a marketing campaign, or investing in the stock market. 

There’s a high chance we are underpredicting the amount of randomness possible in a small sample size. In so doing, we’re prone to making a Type I error (perceiving a pattern when there’s none there). 

Awareness is half the battle:

  • Now that you’re aware of the clustering illusion, you’re in a perfect position to reign back yourself from drawing hasty conclusions. Remember that small sample sizes can be deceptive, hold lightly to your conclusions, and you will be able to avoid making disastrous decisions due to the clustering illusion cognitive bias.

Here’s a great resource to learn more about the clustering illusion (and read an independently fascinating story about WWII)Seeing patterns.

The Mere Exposure Effect

Pretend someone asks you to recommend an email marketing software to them. If you’re like most people, you’ll think of 3-4 different brands, and most likely, one of them will be MailChimp (though if you were to ask us, we would definitely recommend Klaviyo).

In all likelihood, you’re affected by the mere exposure effect. The mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, describes the human tendency to prefer things just because they’re familiar.

Going back to our example, it’s unlikely that you’ve used all 3 or 4 brands you’d recommend. In many cases, you wouldn’t have used the main recommendation, MailChimp, the market leader. That’s the power of the mere exposure effect.

Here’s how to leverage the mere exposure effect cognitive bias for your e-commerce store: 

  • Be everywhere – or at least, in as many places as you can. Even if you’re not able to run advertising on all channels, you should be able to establish retargeting in channels other than your main sales channel. For instance, google display retargeting ads, to Facebook prospects. This helps build familiarity and keeps you top of mind.
  • Do care about being top of mind. E-commerce is a numbers game, and when it comes to numbers, direct response, performance marketing is key. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in raising brand awareness. Consider that an astounding number of purchases result from a much longer cycle than your direct response ads would indicate. You can easily confirm this on your Google Analytics by checking conversion paths. People may discover you today, but they might end up buying 14 days later, after visiting your website 5 times and through different channels. If your awareness marketing helps you be seen/remembered during that period, it may be enough to secure buying preference.
  • Hang out with the cool kids. There’s great value in PR and influencer marketing. Not so much thanks to the additional traffic they will generate, but due to the positive associations, they can create. If you can’t be the likable familiar face for your customers, who is, and how can you partner with them? In other words – who is the Forbes of your category? 

Here’s a link to the original research on the mere exposure effect  (1968) by Robert B. Zajonc: Attitudinal effects of mere exposure.

The Status Quo Bias

Do you know that feeling when everything’s in flux and chaotic and you love it? 

You don’t because we generally dislike change and prefer things to stay as they are. Where we are, right now, is our reference point. We tend to resist any change from that reference point and perceive it as a loss. 

Science calls this the status quo bias. The status quo bias overlaps with other biases, like the mere exposure effect we just covered. 

Why does it happen? According to the Decision Lab, “Status quo bias has been maintained because it facilitates decision-making, especially when we are uncertain of what to do or feel overwhelmed by the number of options we are presented with.”

This explanation indicates the status quo bias is a heuristic we use to reduce complexity. When faced with multiple choices, we choose the default, most familiar option.

How to combat the status quo bias in e-commerce: 

  • Visual complexity and website prototypicality. According to a breakthrough user experience study by Google (full PDF link), simple and familiar-looking websites are rated as more visually appealing. This finding is consistent with the status quo bias. When something is unfamiliar it’s more complex to process. Thus, users are less likely to engage and shop. On the flip side, if your store design follows familiar and simple patterns, it’s much more likely that users will purchase your products.
  • Reduce options when possible. Remember that your customers’ default, status quo is to bounce off your product page and continue their day without shopping. Thus, we don’t want them to feel overwhelmed and default to that option. A good way to ensure that is to streamline the buying process. An example of doing so is to remove product size or color variations that don’t sell. Another way to reduce options is to use smart category names and product-level filters that help users navigate the store (e.g “For Moms” or “Over 40”) without searching the entire catalog.

If you’re keen to learn more about the status quo bias, here’s an excellent 50+ page study that explores how it impacts decision-making: Status Quo Bias in Decision Making.

The Contrast Effect

"Contrast is a fantastic way to capture attention: From slow or static to fast and moving, from emotion A to emotion B, from not using the product to using the product."

The characteristics of anything and anyone are exaggerated when they’re juxtaposed with or immediately follow something else.

Small things look smaller when compared to big things, a car may feel affordable compared to a Porsche, and black text stands out clearly on a white background (as opposed to a dark grey background).

Similarly, if you eat chocolate after you eat vanilla, the chocolate with feel far less sweet than if you ate chocolate after you ate something sour.

As you may imagine, this heightening effect can be both positive and negative. It can highlight the good or surface the ugly in your e-commerce marketing. And you can also use it to draw attention effectively.

The contrast effect is particularly useful for e-commerce: 

  • The contrast effect is critical in e-commerce advertising. Increasingly, e-commerce advertising is a war of attention. And leveraging the contrast effect is a fantastic way to capture attention: From slow or static to fast and moving, from emotion A to emotion B, from not using the product to using the product. These can be all simple 3-second video clips in a 15-second video ad.

Learn more about the contrast effect here: A Theory of Contrast Effects in Performance Appraisal and Social Cognitive Judgments.

Advanced E-commerce Creative Optimization

Leveraging the contrast effect is core to modern e-commerce advertising. Learn more on the free webinar.

The Empathy Gap

"A formula that will work wonders for you [is to] try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view." —Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that causes us to misinterpret mental states that are different from our present state. 

For example, when we’re happy, it’s tough to predict how we would act if we were sad, or angry. And as you may have noticed if you’ve ever started a diet, it’s incredibly hard to predict how you will act when midnight cravings start gnawing at you 😄.

But that’s not all. Most importantly, the empathy gap can also cause us to misjudge the perspective and feelings of others. This has massive implications for e-commerce.

Essentially, we may be utterly blind to what may be making our potential customers nervous, to what may be irritating, or to what may be, in fact, the real use case or desired outcome they’d like to get out of our product.

Troubling, isn’t it?

Here are a few ideas to handle the empathy gap in the context of e-commerce:

  • Here’s a revolutionary idea: What if we upgraded the usual post-purchase flow in e-commerce (boring welcome email, order confirmation, shipping confirmation) with an invitation for a short conversation with one of our customer support agents, highly trained on our product, so that they could answer questions, offer help, and help us collect precious data about our customers’ real needs, frictions, and struggles? Worst case scenario: We’d earn a raving customer praising our service. 
  • Best case: What if we then upgraded the usual follow-up flows or newsletters so that they included content specifically tailored to the real use cases and interests we discovered… as opposed to what we think matters?

Learn more about the empathy gap cognitive bias hereEgocentric Empathy Gaps Between Owners and Buyers: Misperceptions of the Endowment Effect.

The Framing Effect

97% fat-free or 3% fat? Kill 300 out of 400 people or save 100 out of 400 people?

How we frame things matters. The framing effect is a cognitive bias that describes how our decision-making process changes based on how our options are presented – with positive or negative connotations.

According to prospect theory: We value loss more than we value an equivalent gain, and we prefer sure gains to probable gains. In reverse, a probable loss is preferable to a certain loss.

The framing effect is so important that it’s worth exploring a research study. Daniel Kahneman run a research study in 1981 to examine the effects of framing.

Here was the hypothetical, life, and death scenario: 600 people have contracted a deadly disease, and we have two medical treatment options to provide them.

Treatment A will result in 400 deaths (negative framing). Treatment B has a 66% chance of killing everyone, but a 33% chance that everyone will live. Both treatments were also presented in a positive frame: Treatment A will save 200 lives. And treatment B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people.

The results are spectacular: When Treatment A was framed positively, 72% of participants picked it. But when it was framed negatively, the number dropped to an amazing 22%. 

Multiple studies have come up with similar results. Clearly, how we frame things has a huge impact. But how do we use it in the context of e-commerce?

Here’s how to leverage the framing effect:

  • Generally speaking: We want to frame the customer pain points (or risk of inaction) in negative terms, and our products’ benefits in positive terms. So we should say 8 out of 10 overweight people over 40 have type II diabetes (don’t quote me on that!) and that 88% of our exercise equipment buyers manage to lose 10 pounds during the first month of exercise. 
  • Remember that we tend to pay more attention to loss than to an equivalent gain. So if we want to increase product page conversions, our first objective is to make people afraid to lose out on something. We can easily do this in the context by highlighting stock problems, using messaging similar to “Very few left, don’t miss out.” And we can take it a step further by implementing widgets that show users how many people are currently viewing our page, which creates a sense of urgency, or even competition.
  • When it comes to advertising – it’s preferable to lead with a positive message. That’s because advertising compliance policies are getting increasingly stricter and a message with negative connotations is much more likely to encounter issues.  

To learn more, enjoy this excellent paper on framing theory (cited 3440 times!): Framing Theory (PDF download).

The Extension Neglect Bias

The extension neglect bias describes how we tend to neglect the sample size when reviewing a study’s results – even if the sample size is logically very relevant. 

In other words, it’s a tendency to draw broad conclusions about a population based on a small sub group of that population. 

An exaggerated example of extension neglect: Mr. Methusalah is 107 years old and very healthy. He is in great shape and very active. He likes to go for a long, brisk walk every morning, strolling back and forth through Longevity Town. Therefore the people that live in Longevity Town are more healthy than average. 

There are multiple ways to harness the extension neglect bias. Use with caution and don’t be evil: 

  • If you really search for it, you can find scientific studies about everything. But obviously, not all scientific studies are equal. Some have a more rigorous methodology than others. To maximize influence, a marketer could highlight the relevant, sales-enhancing aspects of a study (“2lbs fat reduction in treated flanks”) and omit the less valuable (from a conversion perspective) elements (“a sample size of 10 former athletes”). 
  • Similarly, one can maximize the influence of testimonials by listing out the full transcript of the most positive testimonial, next to the total number of testimonials.

Do a deep dive with this excellent article by Daniel Kahneman: A Perspective on Judgment and Choice Mapping Bounded Rationality.

A Few Words On The Humor Effect

Humor makes things more interesting, more recognizable, and easy to remember. In a nutshell, that is the humor effect, and many research studies well document its effects.

For example, according to a 2017 study, tobacco, alcohol, and obesity ads using humor captured more attention and were judged more convincing than those without humor. Another study indicates that humorous ads work better for unfamiliar brands.

And a further 2015 study called the “Humour effect on memory and attitude” claims that humorous ads are more effective in low-involvement products (cheaper, easier purchases) in terms of ad recall and the general attitude towards the advertisement.

Creative advertisers all over the world have caught up on the potency of humor. That’s why so many advertisements try to be funny or at least use elements of humor.

Here’s an interesting, very successful, and humorous ad in the e-commerce space.

A little bit wacky, but at 38,000,000 views so far, results don’t lie. 

This is a masterful use of humor in e-commerce advertising. For example, notice how: 

  • Humor is a great way to break through the clutter: The first few seconds are an outstanding pattern interrupt that most people have never seen (or expected to see) before.
  • Notice how they start talking about the issues the product they sell solves and then pivot to listing out the benefits of the actual product. It’s absurd – but it works because you are entertained while watching, it’s not dull, and you don’t feel like you’re seriously being sold something.
  • Meanwhile, you’ve consumed the entirety of the sales message, including how the product works, why it’s special, why people like it, how many people like it, and so forth. And best of all, because it’s so absurd, you will likely want share Squatty Potty’s video with your friends. 

If you’d like to explore the humor effect further, here are links to the mentioned studies: Study 1Study 2Study 3.

And Lastly, Post-Purchase Rationalization

Post-purchase rationalization (otherwise known as the choice-supportive bias) is simple: When we make choices, we double down and assign positive attributes to them. At the same time, we tend to downplay the alternatives.

It’s silly, but we’ll often go to extreme lengths to convince ourselves we made the right choice. 

Even if our product is leagues above the competition, we can and should reinforce our customer’s decision after they purchase.

It doesn’t even have to be complicated. Here are a few simple ideas to get started:

  • Affirmative language can be very effective. Words like “Congratulations on your new X” on the post-purchase page or email can go a long way. This language is so powerful it should arguably be used even before the purchase, to discourage cart abandonments (“Great choice!”). 
  • Speaking of post-purchase emails, here’s another way to keep people excited after they buy: Instead of sending a boring, one-line order confirmation email, send them an email highlighting the next steps in detail, from confirmation to processing, to shipping, to delivery. Extra points if you can show images of your team packing the product.
  • Let’s take it a step further: How about sprinkling in some raving reviews in the post-purchase email automation we send? This way, we won’t let the customer lose any excitement while waiting for the product to arrive. This is especially critical if we have a slow supply chain.

Want more? Here’s a full article so you do a deep dive on thhe choice-supportive bias: “Choice-Supportive Bias” in Science: Explanation and Mitigation.

Congratulations! If you've read this far, then you know more about cognitive biases than 99% of digital marketers.

Make no mistake, however. We’ve barely just scratched the surface. 

There’s an entire ocean of applied behavioral psychology for you to explore and hundreds more of cognitive biases for you to apply in your e-commerce company.

If you’re really serious about developing applied psychology chops, then you should definitely read Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” 

In the meantime, here’s a quick action plan: Read through this article again and pay special attention to areas highlighted in yellow. Take notes of the recommendations that apply to your e-commerce company, then pick and test the 5 easiest to implement ideas. 

When you taste results, don’t stop. Why don’t you start going through this gigantic list of cognitive biases? Most of them can be applied to e-commerce in one way or another. Each of them represents an opportunity to boost your store’s performance.

Are you feeling excited? If not, you should be!

PS If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in our content conversion optimization services. Finding innovative ways to apply cognitive bias is only 1 of the 6 ways we drive explosive conversion increases for our clients.

Join and you’ll be in the company of some very smart entrepreneurs and marketers. Plus, you’ll get a very valuable resource free.

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