What can psychology teach us about decision making and conversion?
Cognitive biases are important psychological factors in deciding whether or not to make a purchase. If you are new to the idea of user psychology, you may be unfamiliar with the term “cognitive biases”.
Cognitive simply means “thoughts”, and bias means a leaning or tendency towards a particular way of thinking. So, cognitive bias means there is a likelihood that a person will think a certain way.
There are other impacts on decision making that, although not technically biases, are based in psychology and effect our behaviour online.
Cognitive biases are important psychological factors in deciding whether or not to make a purchase. If you are new to the idea of user psychology,you may be unfamiliar with the term “cognitive biases”. Cognitive, simply means “thoughts”, and bias means a leaning or tendency towards a particular way of thinking. So, cognitive bias means there is a likelihood that a personwill think a certain way. There are other impacts on decision making that, although not technically biases, are based in psychology and effect our behaviour online.Cognitive biases are important psychological factors in deciding whether or not to make a purchase. If you are new to the idea of user psychology,you may be unfamiliar with the term “cognitive biases”. Cognitive, simply means “thoughts”, and bias means a leaning or tendency towards a particular way of thinking. So, cognitive bias means there is a likelihood that a personwill think a certain way. There are other impacts on decision making that, although not technically biases, are based in psychology and effect our behaviour online.Cognitive biases are important psychological factors in deciding whether or not to make a purchase. If you are new to the idea of user psychology,you may be unfamiliar with the term “cognitive biases”. Cognitive, simply means “thoughts”, and bias means a leaning or tendency towards a particular way of thinking. So, cognitive bias means there is a likelihood that a personwill think a certain way. There are other impacts on decision making that, although not technically biases, are based in psychology and effect our behaviour online.
What has this got to do with conversion?
It is helpful to be aware of cognitive biases and other impacts on reasoning because they affect how people behave on your website.
Trigger the right ones, and users are more likely to convert; trigger the wrong ones, and people will be clicking that back button so quick your average session duration will seem like a joke.
What about other parts of user psychology?
When we think about cognitive biases, we may also think about their real-world application, and theories on user behaviour.
We will be exploring lots of different parts of user psychology. You will see as we move on in this article, and through our psychology series, that you can often tie different psychological theories together. You can also link them to principles of best practice, and to models of user behaviour.
Why are we primed to think certain ways?
Let's get deep
Most of us like to think that we have free will, that we can make our own decisions. Many of us will also believe that we are not susceptible to manipulation.
But whether we want to admit it or not, almost all of us will have had our decisions swayed by a cognitive bias (or deeply instilled impulse to act in a particular way) at some point in our lives.
This information brings into question, is free will an illusion?
That’s a huge question, and one we couldn’t possibly hope to answer within this article. The question we are aiming to answer is a lot simpler. How can we use what we know about the predictable nature of human behaviour to get people to convert?
Travelling back in time
So why do we act in similar ways to one another?
Amongst other things, our brains are wired to exist within social communities and to be risk averse. These tendencies are important to online behaviour.
Even the most introverted amongst us will need to rely on farmers, service workers, civil servants, people who create websites etc.
Apart from the very few, humans do not exist in isolation. We need other people. And, in order to co-exist, we conform to certain rules and behave in ways that make it easier to get along with others. To be completely alone is to risk our survival.
Risk and ambiguity
Humans are largely risk averse. In the early days of human existence, survival was a constant struggle. In some parts of the world, it still is today. Even in the UK, we are exposed to a certain level of risk.
Individual tolerance for risk varies, but for the most part, we are hardwired to avoid it. Taking a risk can trigger anxiety. Even a relatively small risk like buying a new car that you can’t fully afford, can be extremely stressful.
No one is asking you to kill a woolly mammoth or tame a pack of wolves, but there is still risk involved in living beyond your means, and our brains are likely to respond in a similar way to this risk as they would to the threats of the past (all be it less extreme).
Ambiguity can increase the perceived risk, meaning that we are more likely to avoid ambiguous situations than ones where we can easily weigh up our options.
Common impacts on reasoning
So, now we know what a couple of the higher-level impacts on our reasoning are and why they exist, we should probably get to talking about more specific examples.
The familiarity effect
The familiarity effect (sometimes called the mere exposure effect) states that the more we see and become familiar with something, the more positively we feel towards it and the more accepting we are that it is true. The familiar is known, and therefore less likely to be perceived as being a threat.
To harness this effect, you should aim to have the same basic layout as other websites. We find that websites typically perform better when things are where we expect them to be, and look the way we expect them to look.
This can be as simple as placing a search bar in the centre of a header on an ecommerce site, or having standard pages on a digital agency website (such as about us, our work, and blog). We find the familiar reassuring, it helps us feel at ease with new experiences.
You can also repeat your USPs, the problems you can solve for your users, the benefits you offer, and your value proposition throughout your website to harness the power of the effect.
The impact of the problem you are solving and the positive value you are offering will begin to feel increasingly important and believable the more it is repeated.
Using the familiarity effect in this way can be linked to the availability heuristic. This is another cognitive bias which states that the easier something is to recall, the more likely it is to be true. If benefits are repeated, they are more likely to be easy to recall.
Evoke feelings of familiarity
Evoking feelings of familiarity by literally showing families may seem like an overly obvious tactic. But I wonder if you have ever realised why so many brands do it?
Images of home and family can make us feel more relaxed and comfortable with a company as it helps the brand seem less threatening.
The Disney Vacation Club is a timeshare arrangement that aims to distance itself from the anxieties typically associated with the risky and scam-heavy timeshare industry. As well as being a family orientated company, the slogan for the vacation club literally makes you “feel at home” with the brand.
The familiarity effect gives users a feeling of reassurance and a positive outlook on your company.
In addition, locating page elements in the standard places also helps to reduce the knowledge gap.
The knowledge gap is the difference between a target user’s current knowledge from previous experience, and how much that user needs to know in order to use your website.
The knowledge gap is different for different users. For example, someone with an ecommerce store may be more used to the layout of a digital agency website than someone who works as a nurse, because they are used to looking for support with their site.
Therefore, it would likely take a nurse longer to find a specified piece of information on an agency website than it would the ecommerce owner. The easier a site is to navigate, the more at ease we will be with it.
Ambiguity aversion and specification principles
Captured in the phrase “better the devil you know”, the ambiguity aversion principle states that we prefer options where an outcome is known over ones where it is unknown, even if the known outcome has a large cost (be this quantifiable or more of a subjective negative impact).
The fear of the unknown is rational. The fear of what might be is often far scarier than a known (and therefore calculable) risk. This can help explain why horror movies often become less frightening once you see the ghost/demon/murderer, etc. Your brain can rationalise what is known far easier than what it does not know.
Although small doses of uncertainty can induce curiosity (a known increaser of attention), too much will cause people to back away. Our comfort with ambiguity varies from person to person.
The accommodation booking website Hotwire allows users to book some of the hotel rooms they feature for a big discount. The catch? The user doesn’t know the name of the hotel until after they have booked. For some people this would be too much ambiguity; for others, the potential value outweighs the potential risk.
Other impacts of ambiguity aversion
There is test environment evidence to suggest that the ambiguity aversion principle can be eliminated in the absence of social judgement. But we must remember that real-world choices often come with a threat of social evaluation, even if it is not immediately present.
This test scenario also used a situation unlikely to cause a high level of anxiety, whereas paying for something (especially from a company you are unfamiliar with) poses a risk, and therefore any ambiguity is more likely to raise anxiety and prevent conversion.
The opposite to ambiguity is specificity (being clear and specific). A specific statement appears more trustworthy and believable than generalisations.
Way back in the 1920’s, Claude Hopkins wrote about the importance of being specific in advertisements. People are far more likely to believe in, trust, and feel comfortable buying from you if you avoid ambiguity and vague sentiments.
Be specific about your offer, use numbers to emphasise your benefits, address common uncertainties raised by competitor offers or your own, and be specific about what happens when you click on a call to action to help eliminate ambiguity.
Innocent Smoothies use specific, quantifiable information about what goes into their drinks.
According to the MECLABS Institute conversion formula, being specific can help ease anxieties, which increases the chance of conversion. This is especially true if specificity is used to reduce anxiety at points in the user journey when uncertainties are most likely to arise in the user’s mind.
For example, providing clear delivery information and costs before the checkout is often not done on ecommerce sites (especially those using Shopify). This could see users abandoning checkout due to uncertainty around delivery.
Paradox of choice
Being presented with one option means people are forced to choose between having what’s offered or not having it, and they will look elsewhere for any alternative options. But having too many options results in a “paradox of choice” (or an inability to make a decision).
A paradox of choice means there is a greater risk of making the wrong choice. When given a number of options, we assume one must be the “right” choice. Working out which choice is the right one is made more difficult when there are many choices.
We may also feel more overwhelmed by multiple options when the decision we are making is an important one. Because it takes more “brain cycles” (see the Fogg behaviour model) or effort to make a decision on something important, we are able to process fewer options.
The MECLABS Institute conversion formula also talks about how important it is to reduce “friction”, which can mean complexity.
So, whilst making a decision about which cake to eat from a pastry case can be tricky, we may put off deciding which pension plan to choose all together.
What’s more, having too many options results in lower satisfaction with the choice made. Our brains will focus on what we missed out on rather than what we have. The paradox of choice doesn’t just apply to buying things online, it can affect seemingly unrelated areas of our life, such as our satisfaction in romantic relationships.
Dating apps massively increased the number of potential partners available to us. We used to be stuck with the options in the same room/bar, etc., but now we can choose to swipe right on people within a several mile radius. Suddenly we have a lot more choice, and also a lot more opportunity to feel that there may be a better match out there, if only we were to look again.
Being dissatisfied with a purchase is likely to be less impactful than being dissatisfied with a relationship, but the same logic applies. If you want your customers to have a loyal relationship with your brand, then you need them to feel satisfied with their decision to choose you.
Increasing limited options
Try adding a secondary CTA where only one exists. For example, providing an option to add an item to a wishlist on a product page as well as adding to basket gives the user a choice beyond “Do I want this right now?”.
Another example is providing an option for how often someone wants to receive a newsletter on a newsletter signup prompt. The decision is not “Do I want to receive emails from this company?” but rather “Would emails from this company every 2 weeks be preferable to every month?”.
If you only have one product or service, try offering a variation of that product or service, such as a different colour or a premium option.
If you offer a wide range of options, limit the number a customer is exposed to at one time through personalisation (asking questions about user preferences and needs to narrow down options) and/or filtering.
Virgin Holidays do this by getting the user to select the group they feel they fit into. This strategy also has the benefit of triggering the belonging and conformity effect, where people are more inclined to convert if they believe others in “their group” have done the same.
Directing decision making
You can also consider making decisions easier for your customers by providing an “obviously” good choice.
A decision which is supported by social proof can make it seem like a logical decision, because people are primed to conform and seek reassurance that their choice will be a socially approved one. Showing an option as one that has been socially approved can aid decision making.
Adding product badges/labels to options which suggest a popular choice such as “customer favourite”, “chosen by XX,XXX customers”, or “currently in XX’s people’s wishlist” can help encourage selection of that option (bonus points if you use specific numerical information).
To learn about why social proof has been deemed one of Cialdini’s 7 Principles of Influence, check out this article.
Scarcity and conformity
In addition to narrowing down choices and showing the socially approved one, you can also direct users towards an option by using scarcity and urgency.
Scarcity tells the user that what they want is rare (and therefore desirable) and therefore the option is limited, sparking loss aversion and prompting faster decision making.
Providing enough choice for the user means they start comparing your options rather than your single offering to competitors’ offerings.
By limiting the number of options to a manageable amount, you reduce the chance that the user will become overwhelmed. Eliminating a paradox of choice reduces the amount of mental effort the user must put into their task.
You aid decision making, lower anxiety related to the risk of picking the wrong thing, encourage action towards conversion, and help your customer feel more satisfied with their purchase.
Want more Psychology related insights into conversion? You're in luck
We will be back with some more fascinating facts about the things you need to be aware of to increase conversions. So go ahead and binge on the next article like it’s your favourite Netflix series.
Alternatively, if you would like to chat to our friendly founder about implementing psychology driven CRO on your website then get in touch.