12 Common Cognitive Biases That Can Affect Your Marketing

By Ashley Orndorff, aka Marketing Geek cognitive bias concept - placing last puzzle piece to complete lightbulb inside a mind

Our brains and bodies are built to help us survive, but it’s also easy to fall back on mental shortcuts. Sometimes these are helpful and sometimes they aren’t, and they can affect everything including marketing your business. Whether you are marketing to your audience or analyzing your own efforts, here are some cognitive biases that can affect your marketing:

What is a Cognitive Bias?

As our brains attempt to interpret the information around us, they also try to simplify and categorize it. A cognitive bias is an unconscious error we make as our brains try to simplify and process the complex world and information around us. This could occur through the use of mental shortcuts, also known as heuristics, emotions, other social factors, and more.

Although there are some standard cognitive biases all humans are prone to, the specific results of them do vary from person to person because they are filtered through our own experiences; past and present. They affect our actions, the way we make decisions, the way we interact with others, and more.

12 Common Cognitive Biases That Can Affect Your Marketing

Although cognitive biases are often simplified as “unconscious errors in thinking” and can have negative consequences, they aren’t always negative things. A bias simply means a tendency to favor or lean towards a specific idea, person, group, thing, etc. When used ethically in marketing, cognitive biases can help encourage engagement or even perhaps a sale.

When strategizing or analyzing your own marketing efforts, there are also some cognitive biases that can affect you in those situations. Regardless, it’s good to be aware of them. Here are some common cognitive biases that can affect your marketing:

1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most common and well-known cognitive biases. Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to seek out and remember information that confirms or conforms with preexisting beliefs and opinions while avoiding or forgetting information that challenges them. It also tends to cause us to interpret new information as confirmation that our existing beliefs and/or opinions are correct.

In marketing, this can skew your ideas and analyses. If you believe certain things about your audience or campaigns, you may end up ignoring important information that would challenge whatever you may be convinced is right. If you’re convinced certain messaging will resonate with your audience and it doesn’t, it may cause you to attribute the poor performance to something else. You should be running tests to see what is the most effective, but you could also waste a lot of time and money testing the wrong things if confirmation bias gets in the way.

In your marketing efforts, you can use the principles of confirmation bias to create content that resonates with your target audience and encourages them to interact with your brand. For customers who have already had a positive experience with your brand, customer retention strategies that resonate with them can help layer on that positivity and nudge them into loyal customers or brand ambassadors.

2. Hindsight Bias

As the cliche goes, “hindsight is 20/20.” We have the cliche because of hindsight bias, which is the tendency to remember or think about past events as more predictable than they actually were at the time. “I knew that would happen” is easy to say after it happened and you can connect past events with the context and knowledge you have now that you didn’t have in the past.

It’s important to remind yourself of this during strategy and brainstorming sessions. If you become overly confident about how well you are able to predict outcomes, you could end up making some major marketing mistakes. Depending on how big the mistake is, you could even end up with an online reputation management problem.

3. Anchoring Bias

The anchoring bias, or anchoring effect, is where the first information we encounter is often more salient and holds a greater influence over our choices than information we encounter or learn later.

In marketing, web design and print design, social media, and more, we see this in making sure things are “above the fold” or important information is presented early, simply, and clearly. The sooner you can get the important stuff across as a marketer, designer, etc. the better chance you have at engaging further with your target audience.

Depending on the medium and the context, further engagement could be something as simple as reading the rest of a blog post or maybe even sharing it on social media or it could be a transaction or another step towards becoming a customer.

4. Recency Bias

Recency bias refers to the human brain’s tendency to place more value and emphasis on recent experiences, information, etc. than historic ones, even if what is most recent is not the most relevant. This bias is considered a memory bias where we tend to “forget” the bigger picture and longer history of experiences in favor of what has happened most recently.

This also leads us to take in recent events and weigh them more heavily and take them more seriously as a prediction of what could happen in the future. Essentially, without thinking about it, we tend to evaluate recent events as having a higher probability of happening again soon even if that probability is not realistic.

Because recency bias unrealistically values the most recent experiences, it does limit the window of information and context that is being considered, which can result in poor decision-making.

Combat Recency Bias by Considering the Bigger Picture

As a marketer, an example of recency bias would be seeing a drop in website traffic in the short term, assuming it will continue, and making strategic decisions based on that alone without looking at historical data and the bigger picture. Business owners can fall into this trap as well.

For example, seasonal businesses see short-term drops in traffic from search engines when search interest in their products/services decrease. Ignoring historical data and that overall context in favor of assuming the recent drop is caused by something else and will continue could lead to making decisions about business, marketing, and strategy that aren’t right for what is actually going on and could hurt growth in the long run.

5. Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is closely related to recency bias. Recency bias is even sometimes called availability bias because they interact so often and usually happen together. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut where people base judgments about the probability of something happening or being true based on the information that comes to mind first, quickly, and easily.

Since recency bias is all about putting more value on recent events, they can often come to mind first and this is how recency bias often connects with the availability heuristic. But, the availability heuristic is not limited to just recent events.

If other information, facts, events, etc. come to mind first, they may have more effect on the judgments made than recent events that did not come to mind as quickly. Using the availability heuristic, we make decisions and judgments and process reality with the information most readily available to us.

The Availability Heuristic in Marketing

This is one of the reasons why brand matters to your business and why brand awareness and good user experience are so important. There are other things at play with brand awareness and customer loyalty, but the availability heuristic can come into play when it comes to purchasing decisions.

This is why so many brands try to stay “top-of-mind” and to do so in a way that builds them a positive reputation as a trusted authority and business. This is also one of the reasons why retargeting can work well and why providing a good experience at every stage of the buyer’s journey is important.

When someone thinks of your brand or hears about it, what information easily and quickly comes to mind? Does that information reflect well on your brand and encourage a contact or purchase or does it reflect poorly and drive customers away? These are some things to consider when it comes to your marketing, your business, and how you interact with customers.

6. Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is all about maintaining our self-esteem, enhancing it, and advancing our self-interest. This bias refers to the habit of attributing positive outcomes to internal efforts and negative outcomes to external events or forces. In order to protect ourselves and our peace, our brains tend to attribute positive things that happen to our own efforts and negative things that happen to things outside of our control. It’s often a defense mechanism.

To be fair, things happen that are out of our control and life is not fair. Self-serving bias is when this internal vs external responsibility attribution error happens with situations that are within our control. In a school situation, if you don’t pay attention in class, learn the material, or study, and then fail an exam, the self-serving bias would be to blame the teacher, the school, etc. without acknowledging your own role in that negative outcome.

Self-serving bias can cause distortions in processing information, situations, etc. where we misjudge what is going on to preserve a positive view/feeling about ourselves while avoiding accountability or responsibility for our own actions in a situation. Self-serving bias can also show up as an overly favorable perception of oneself and in unethical or undesirable actions that only serve someone’s own interests.

Self-Serving Bias in Marketing to Customers

Self-serving bias can show up in marketing. It’s one of the factors at play when it comes to creating content that stands out, products that resonate, and building brands people want to be involved with. From a business perspective, aligning with your potential customer’s self-serving bias, at least in the sense of helping them maintain a good view of themselves, can increase the likelihood of them becoming your customer.

People want to feel good about themselves and if your product, service, content, etc. can help them accomplish something they want or help them feel smart, capable, funny, etc., they’re more likely to share it with others if it reflects well on them and to want to continue to interact with your business. This is something to consider in your marketing efforts, what you create for your business, and how you present it.

Self-Serving Bias as a Marketer

From a marketer’s perspective, the self-serving bias could come into play when evaluating data or tactics. You don’t want to suggest something for a business because it’s an idea you like that makes you look good if it doesn’t make sense for them or their target audience. At the same time, if a tactic isn’t working or a campaign underperforms expectedly, it’s important to make sure you’re not shrugging it off as things outside of your control without critically evaluating the internal stuff.

Was the messaging wrong? Was it the wrong strategy? Was it implemented correctly? Were the channels the right ones? There are tons of details that go into everything marketers do and create for businesses. Available data can’t always give you an exact and defined answer about what went wrong. To get the best idea of what to keep doing, stop doing, change, or test again, it’s important to keep it all in perspective and evaluate the pieces, sources, results, etc. fairly.

7. Framing Effect

The framing effect refers to how someone’s choice among a set of options is influenced more by how the options are presented than the information itself at times; essentially, how the options are framed. More specifically, the framing effect occurs when people tend to make choices that avoid risk when information is framed positively and tend to favor risk when information is framed negatively.

The Framing Effect in Everyday Life

One of the most common examples of the framing effect in action in everyday life is with purchasing decisions where the “risk” could be considered as taking a chance on a product by purchasing it. Think about the messaging for disinfectants; there’s a reason why all the messaging centers around how many germs they kill.

When presented with disinfectants that “kill 99% of germs” versus disinfectants where “only 1% of germs survive”, people are more likely to respond to the messaging with negative framing that describes how many germs die instead of the positive framing that describes how many live. This also aligns with the classic 1981 Tversky & Kahneman experiment considered the origin of the framing effect.

The Framing Effect in Marketing

When it comes to marketing, the framing effect has a big effect on how to approach your messaging, especially when it comes to your calls to action. If your messaging is meant to get someone to do something (i.e.: take a risk), then it makes sense for promotional copy or calls to action to present options with negative framing over positive.

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that applies to all messaging in all circumstances all the time, but it is something to keep in mind as you’re writing and evaluating your brand messaging and marketing copy across channels, campaigns, and materials. Not only can this help you improve the effectiveness of your messaging overall, but it can also help you write successful calls to action for your business marketing campaigns.

8. False Consensus Effect

The false consensus effect, or consensus bias, refers to our tendency to view our own experiences, behaviors, opinions, beliefs, attributes, etc. as more common and appropriate than they are. We tend to view the world through our eyes and consider our experience “the norm” or what is typical of everyone.

It’s human nature to want to view our thoughts and actions as correct, normal, and appropriate; the false consensus effect comes into play when we extend that to others and overestimate how many people or how much people agree with our beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes.

The False Consensus Effect in Marketing

In marketing, the false consensus effect can seriously hinder how well you can define your target audience and understand your potential customer. If you don’t combat the false consensus effect, you may build a target audience based on your own thoughts and beliefs instead of those of potential customers.

Sometimes marketers are potential customers too, but for the most part, the person or team defining the target audience and marketing to them is not a member of that target audience. It’s important to understand your potential customer, their goals, their pain points, etc. to be able to position your brand effectively as a resource for them. If your understanding of your audience is wrong, your marketing efforts are not going to resonate with people who could actually become your customers.

9. Noble Edge Effect

The noble edge effect in the context of cognitive biases that can affect your marketing is all about corporate social responsibility and why it works when it is meaningful and authentic. With the noble edge effect, brands that meaningfully and authentically display social responsibility tend to be received positively by customers and potential customers and tend to be rewarded with growth because of it. The combination of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and the noble edge effect within the context of marketing boils down to how doing something good can also be good for business.

The Noble Edge Effect Can Improve Brand Perception

Not only does this positively affect overall brand perception, but it can also extend to referral programs offered by that brand and how the program is structured. In this way, provided your efforts are authentic, the noble edge effect can help potential customers develop a more positive view of your brand and help increase customer loyalty for existing customers.

The caveat here is that it has to be perceived as genuine, authentic, and not purely self-serving. It can’t be all about you or be insincere. If it is, or even comes across that way, you could end up with a negative brand perception instead.

It Can Also Cause Marketers to Overestimate or Miss Details

As a marketer, just be aware of this effect on yourself as you evaluate overall branding, brand messaging, brand awareness, brand perception, etc. If you go too far into the noble edge effect, you could find yourself overestimating impacts or viewing a brand with rose-colored glasses and missing important details, especially if self-serving bias also comes into play because the related causes are important to you or part of your identity.

10. Halo Effect

Part of the reason the noble edge effect works, when done right, is due to the halo effect. The halo effect is when one trait of something or someone is used to make an overall judgment about it or them. It also extends to how the overall impression of a person, business, thing, etc. affects judgments about their character, reputation, quality, etc.

Although it is mostly perceived in the context of a positive trait leading to overall positive judgments, the caveat of the halo effect is that it can go either way. One negative trait or experience can also lead to an overall negative judgment about a brand or a person.

This, along with negativity bias and some other mental shortcuts, contributes to why it can take up to 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience with a brand. And, contributes to why things like public relations, brand awareness, social listening, online reputation management, and more are so important for building, monitoring, and maintaining your brand online.

11. Pricing Placebo Effect

The marketing placebo effect, more specifically the pricing placebo effect, refers to how, as consumers, we often associate higher prices with higher quality. In the past, this was thought to also influence how we perceived our experience with the product as well.

In certain situations, there may be some influence. However, the overall effect on experience when it comes to price does not seem to be as strong as the effect on the perception of what the experience will be.

Essentially, although higher prices do affect expectations and can influence expectations of the product, it does not tend to apply to actual experience with the product. Higher-priced products, services, etc. do increase expectations for them, but do not extend to how we perceive our experience with them once we actually try or use them.

From a marketing perspective, higher prices could give you an edge, but only if your product actually lives up to the hype. If it doesn’t, you could receive a bigger negative reaction because the initial expectations and costs involved for the consumer were higher. There may be some insulation if the sunk costs fallacy comes into play, but you definitely should not rely on that to make up for mismanaging customer expectations or straight-up misleading them.

12. Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy, or sunk cost effect, occurs when someone chooses to do something or chooses to continue to do something based on the amount of time or money invested in it, even when stopping would be beneficial. The sunk cost fallacy is more than just pushing through and not quitting to achieve something; it’s continuing to pour money, time, and effort into something that isn’t working just because so much has already been invested.

In some cases, this has led to breakthroughs. In most cases, it has led to a lot of wasted time and money. Sometimes, it’s something we see clearly in hindsight while other times, we missed or ignored the cues to stop because we convinced ourselves to keep going to try and make our investments worthwhile.

In marketing, this can mean a lot of wasted dollars, missed opportunities, etc. This is not to say that you should drop a campaign just because you’re not getting the results you expected immediately. Some things do take time and are a longer-term investment.

Good marketing is often a series of iterations and experiments and, depending on what you’re doing, you may need to give something time to work and try a few things before evaluating whether it makes sense to keep going or do something different. Giving your campaigns a fair chance and evaluating them fairly while also avoiding the sunk cost effect is the goal.

These are just a few of the common cognitive biases that can affect your marketing. Whether you are planning new campaigns or strategies or evaluating your efforts, being aware of them can help you avoid potential missteps with your own thought processes and also make your marketing efforts more effective.

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