Cognitive Bias: The Weird Way We Weigh Things Up

  • In an earlier blog, we explored the weird way we think – introducing the concept of ‘cognitive bias’ and exploring the strange effects that our subconscious can have on our general thought processes. Now we’ll look at some specific examples of cognitive bias which come into play in a very specific scenario… when we start to ‘weigh things up’.

    We know from Google’s Zero Moment of Truth research that the web is all about comparison shopping. But when people compare and contrast between different options, bizarre things start to happen. Our subconscious minds jump into action and, in trying to save us mental energy, lead us to make some less-than-logical decisions.

  • With an understanding of these psychological quirks, we can guide our digital marketing strategies and tactics to get better results.

  • Distinction Bias

    When we compare two or more things side-by-side, we naturally focus on the distinctions between them. We fixate on the points of difference so that we can process each thing as being separate.

    However, when we’re presented with the same options separately, we fixate on the similarities. We encounter the second option on its own, so we can’t start an appraisal without first finding a basis for comparison. To define that frame of reference, we look for similarities with what we’ve seen before to put the new option into context – we see the common elements before the contrasting ones.


    If you’re having a nice meal somewhere and fancy a refreshing cola drink, you’d probably be quite content with either Coke or Pepsi… whatever the restaurant serves. When the two products are separated, we see them as remarkably similar products. Once it arrives and you have a sip, you might then start thinking about the difference between the two.

    However, when you’re given a side-by-side choice of Pepsi or Coke, say in the supermarket for example, you’ll probably have a strong preference for one over the other. You’re either in the Coke camp or the Pepsi camp. That’s your distinction bias at work.

    In practice:

    If you want people to focus on the similarities between two offerings, separate them. If you want people to focus on the points of difference, show them side-by-side.

    This could be a competitive consideration for brand and product placement (as in the case of Coke and Pepsi). Do you want to be seen in the same search results or social conversations as competitors, where points of difference will take centre stage; or would you rather be seen in your own space where people are more likely to see similarities between you and your competition?

    You can also apply this thinking to the way you present your own brands, products, price-points or special offers. Should they be shown on the same page in your website or on separate pages; promoted together or separately?

  • The Decoy (or ‘Goldilocks’) Effect

    We all like middle-ground. It’s diplomatic. It’s safe.

    Our dependence on the middle-ground runs deep. Our subconscious minds have become so used to taking what feels like the safest option that we are often compelled to take the middle-ground even if it flies in the face of logic.

    This is known as the Goldilocks Effect – our tendency to go for the middle of three options even if the higher or lower option is actually more suitable. If we see three price-points or three levels of service on offer, our subconscious will usually drive us to go for the middle one rather than the cheapest or most expensive, the most extravagant or the most basic.

    In practice:

    If your company or brand has a basic offering and a premium offering, it can be worth adding a third, higher ‘decoy’ option. In doing so, your original premium offering will seem more reasonable and will likely get more attention.

  • Reactance

    In the most basic marketing terms, if you are too pushy with customers then you’ll likely trigger a negative response. This response, known as ‘Reactance’, stems from our need to preserve our freedom of choice (or at least our illusion of it). Try to force me one way and I’ll go the other just to prove a point.

    In practice:

    We should always remind ourselves that customers are not cattle. Except in very rare scenarios, they cannot be herded around through brazen advertising and forceful messages. A delicate touch is required if you don’t want to trigger the reactance reflex.

    Even if a customer knows less about the alternative option or can clearly see that it isn’t quite as good, they might still feel justified in choosing it if they are standing their ground and taking back ownership of their decision. You need to tread lightly enough to not push customers into the waiting arms of your competitors.

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Matt Seabridge

With a Masters degree in Marketing, Matt uses his specialist knowledge and experience of SEO to create compelling content that earns links and drives traffic to our clients' websites.

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