Behind the Click: Five Cognitive Biases That Drive Action

by Michelle Gunn, PhD, 12 Feb 2019

Content has a single purpose: To drive action.

It’s safe to assume that the action is undertaken by a person with an actual human brain … a brain that, as it turns out, may not know why it’s even taking said action. Why? Because human brains involve automatic processing that’s often faulty.

It’s a fact: Your brain likes to do its own thing when you’re not looking.

When it comes to consumer behavior, this defective processing turns up regularly in the form of cognitive biases. These are cerebral shortcuts that can lead consumers — and, well, all of us — to exercise poor, even irrational, judgment.

Don’t worry. Your brain isn’t broken; it’s simply overloaded. At any given time, your brain is responsible for interpreting and processing vast quantities of information. It would take far too much processing power to consider every possible option for every decision. So, your brain does the best it can by creating shortcuts — which can still lead you to the wrong decision, or the right decision for the wrong reason.

As marketers, we can rely on some of these cognitive biases to help a target make his or her decision to act, engage or buy more quickly. Here are five to consider. (And remember: Always use your powers for good.)

#1. Bandwagon effect

  • What it is: A phenomenon whereby people do something primarily because others are doing it. Bandwagoning is the antidote to fear, uncertainty and doubt.
  • Where it shows up: Think case studies, testimonials and customer reviews that make people feel a bit safer making the buy, simply because other people clearly have done so.

#2. Anchor bias

  • What it is: A phenomenon that occurs when someone relies too heavily on the first (or “anchor”) piece of information versus subsequent data.
  • Where it shows up: Ever seen a sale circular (or email, or TV spot, etc.) with the original price of a product slashed out in favor of the sale price? That’s the retailer poking at your anchor bias. Our brains are terrible at understanding intrinsic value; so when you see the “slash” treatment, your brain is convinced it’s getting the better deal.

(Note: Don’t confuse anchor bias with decoy effect pricing; that’s when a company deliberately creates a decoy price placed between two other pricing options. The decoy price is usually the most expensive, but closer to the second-most expensive option, which by contrast has the effect of making the second-most expensive item seem more attractive — thus skewing your perception of the product and its value.)

#3. Restraint bias

  • What it is: Thinking you have more control of your impulsive behavior than you do. In fact, the more control you think you have, the likelier you are to act impulsively.
  • Where it shows up: The impulse-buy section in the checkout line. Online, it can show up when you’re presented with related add-ons or bundles when you’re in the purchase flow and almost ready to check out.

#4. Priming

  • What it is: When exposure to a trigger (words, numbers, images, scents, objects) creates a subconscious response that in turn influences your behavior. Think of it as mood lighting for the desired action.
  • Where it shows up: Say you get an email from an environmental nonprofit. The subject line and pre-header might include words like “oily,” “toxic” and “sludge.” You might see an image of that thick, viscous substance near a headline calling out an oil corporation for pollution. By the time you get to the donation ask, you’re primed to feel the corporation itself is what’s gross, toxic and slimy…and of course you have to donate to stop them. That’s priming.

#5. Confirmation bias

  • What it is: When you believe your opinion or decision is objective, but you’re really only seeking that which conforms to or confirms your prior belief.
  • Where it shows up: In all marketing, from offline shelf displays to online retargeting. We’re constantly served ads that remind us why our existing preferences are the best ones — which creates commercial tribalism. Take Samsung vs. Apple. If you’re Team Samsung, you’re going to look for reasons to discredit an iPhone offer, and vice versa … even if the rival option might be better suited to your needs. (This is one reason why consumer preference targeting is so effective.)


Bonus consideration for marketers: Our own confirmation bias. Nearly all of us have been guilty of it — thinking we already know our target customer so well that we adapt research and messaging to support what we already believe about them. It’s a bias that can negatively impact marketing and cost new opportunities.

But, deployed responsibly and ethically, marketing psychology allows you to understand your audience in a more nuanced way, and create messaging shortcuts that get them through your funnel successfully. You’ll actually have more empathy for your customer, too, since you have a better idea of how their biases — and yours — work.

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