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Communications & Marketing
Cognitive biases – shortcuts to decision-making

Taking advantage of the superpowers of marketing psychology may just give an edge over competitors and get the results we are looking for.


Annika Konttinen

lehtori, matkailuliiketoiminta
Senior Lecturer, tourism business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Anu Seppänen

lehtori, markkinointi ja viestintä
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 12.12.2022

In a previous blog post, we wrote about Gestalt psychology which can be used by marketers to affect our decision-making. Another way to influence our buying behaviour is the concept of cognitive bias, which refers to the shortcuts our brains have created to make us reach decisions faster. They can be seen both as threats and opportunities.

Cognitive biases can be seen as threats as there sometimes is a failure in logic or an error in our judgement based on our expectations. Our perception is biased. There are dozens of deviations from rationality and logic that we fall for. Sometimes we take mental shortcuts and use wishful thinking, ask leading questions to get the answer that we are after.

Biases can be an opportunity, too, as they make us act fast and close deals in no time. In fact, as there are over 180 cognitive biases out there influencing our behaviour, it is worth exploring some of them.

Throw the anchor, hop on the bandwagon

Anchoring bias means that we often rely mostly on the first piece of information we receive – using it as the criteria for making decisions. In marketing and sales, however, the first feedback from a potential customer may not be the most important one. More customer understanding is always good. A way to make the anchoring bias work in marketing is to make sure that your brand is the first that comes to the minds of consumers when asked. If you want to highlight a deal, put it first.

Bandwagon effect means that if many people believe in a thing, it is more likely to be chosen. Something may be marked as “popular choice” or “soon to sell out” on a website or influencers may be promoting the product. If many others have chosen it and if powerful influencers are collaborating with the brand, it must be worth choosing.

Fall for frames and unique features

Framing bias is great for marketers as they can exploit the way information and messages are presented to us – of course knowing what gets our attention in a delivery. They can use attractive images, place things in the middle or explain how their product will improve our lives. We are impressed by the show, and they get the deal. A similar bias is the halo effect – we tend to go for attractive things and people, and believe that they are good in other areas, too.

We often fall for the salience effect, i.e., choose the option that stands out. We think that if something is unique, it must be good and affect us positively. Offering exclusivity and services that competitors do not have, makes your offer stand out from the crowd. You can highlight it with distinctive visuals to make the case stronger.

Believe and you shall receive

Placebo effect means that if we believe something to be effective, it becomes more effective, even if it is fake. We also fall for selective perception which means that our expectations influence the way we see the world. Thus, we focus on what we already believe in, and see more of it around us. The blind-spot bias means that we often do not notice our own biases, we find it much easier to spot them in other people.

Information bias means that we look for more information to make decisions even though we might make better decisions with the information that we already have. Less is more. However, the confirmation bias warns us that we should not interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe – we should always welcome new information and change our views based on that. Life-long-learning, in practice!

Compassion and feelings of nostalgia

The compassion fade means that we usually relate easier to a small number of individual victims in a disaster than to thousands of anonymous ones. That is why storytelling and giving names to buying persona makes sense – we can feel for individuals and identify with them.

Choice bias is for the nostalgics among us – it is about reminiscing about past decisions and viewing them in a positive light while thinking that the options we did not take were all bad anyway. It is about our tendency to remember only the positives and put aside the negatives. That may be dangerous for learning, though, as we are not capable of taking in new information. Learning from past mistakes is vital for long-term success.

Finish your business and look into the future

The Zeigarnik effect says that we remember unfinished tasks more than the ones that are finished. Marketers can send us motivational reminders about a shopping cart waiting for us to be filled – perhaps we forgot to make the purchase before the sale is finished? Or perhaps our airline loyalty programme sent us a message saying that we are only two flights away from the next tier.

The ones having a gambler’s fallacy believe that something is less likely in the future, if it is happening a lot now. If businesses are encountering lots of negative feedback, they may believe that there will be less of it in the future, even if they do not change anything. However, a different outcome calls for some investigation: what is causing all the negative feedback? The only way to change that is to find out why and change behaviour accordingly.

The hot hand fallacy is just the opposite. If you believe, that you are on a winning streak, you may not be able to take on new information and just keep believing that everything is going your way. Even though that may not be the case at all. It is important to stay vigilant and spot the emerging weak signals and trends.

Marketing psychology is for marketers!

Recognising that we all have our biases will make it easier to avoid their negative impact – and perhaps also take advantage of the positive effects they may have. Using cognitive biases at the different stages of the buying process can make customers feel good about their experience. Using creativity and imagination as well as communication and storytelling are important in marketing.

Taking advantage of the superpowers of marketing psychology may just give an edge over competitors. It is not always possible to know what biases we are encountering but being aware of them will help us understand our customers, adjust our behaviour and get the results we are looking for. The human mind works in magical ways!

P.S. Read more about the secrets of marketing psychology and cognitive biases (e.g., the concepts of reciprocity, scarcity effect, FOMO and decoy effect) in our previous blog posts.