Confirmation bias: how errors in reasoning can be used in marketing

Women don’t know how to park a car, left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people, more and more people meditate – however absurd or obvious an assumption may seem to you, everyone has certain strong beliefs they are not willing to let go of without a fight. You’ve probably had at least a few conversations where the person you were talking to stubbornly maintained their opinion, even though you confronted them with facts that exposed their point of view as objectively false. People are inclined to downplay or ignore such information entirely, while in everyday life they always latch onto what appears like evidence for the validity of their arguments.

These types of situations are examples of confirmation bias at work. This psychological flaw in reasoning distorts our perception. It ensures that we only selectively assimilate new information and adhere to convictions that we already held to begin with.

Confirmation bias: definition and explanation

Human thinking is anything but objective. Rather, it is subject to diverse cognitive distortions. That’s why when processing information, we regularly and systematically make mistakes.

Definition

Confirmation bias describes the propensity of humans to prefer to assimilate and classify as relevant only the information which is partial to their own existing convictions.

The psychologist Peter Wason demonstrated the existence of the reasoning error in the 1960s as the first of several experiments.

In one of these experiments (2-4-6 task) the test subjects were asked to identify according to which rule number sequences of three numbers had been arranged. The number sequence 2-4-6 was given to participants, after which they could specify their own number combinations that they assumed conformed with the rule. Lastly, they were asked to state the rule that they believed to have identified. The results, according to Wason, showed that the test subjects were inclined to only test those number sequences that supported their own assumption.

Wason was also able to observe this fallacy in other experiments – e.g. during a selection test/Four-Card-Problem. In the following decades, further research regarding this subject resulted in numerous new findings and the term “confirmation bias” is now used to denote an entire series of thinking and memory patterns. Below are some examples:

  • Information acquisition: People only gather information that supports their own assumptions (Wason’s definition of confirmation bias).
  • Memory: People only recall information that is compatible with their own opinion.
  • Framing: People interpret new information in a way that is in line with the attitude they have held up to now.
  • Reassess: People tend to pass on opportunities to question their own opinion.
  • Reject: People reject information that is not in agreement with their own convictions.

Confirmation bias: examples from everyday life

Research on confirmation bias and whether we can free ourselves from it have occupied psychologists for decades. And for good reason. This is because the cognitive distortion can have serious and sometimes dangerous consequences.

If a doctor doesn’t examine a patient thoroughly, for example, because they are known to be a hypochondriac and their symptoms are not to be taken seriously, the doctor could fail to identify a serious illness in time, ultimately leading to the patient’s death.

But it doesn’t have to be this dramatic. Even when watching or reading the news, we disregard information that is not in line with our beliefs due to confirmation bias. In addition to this, algorithms in social media only present us with facts that are in agreement with our worldview. This widens the gap between different political camps, making it harder and harder to rectify radicalized opinions.

The existence of this reasoning error is widely regarded as certain among scientists. The extent to which people are actually influenced in their decisions by confirmation bias, however, to this day remains disputed. Gary Klein, for example, sees central weaknesses in the research.

5 ways to exploit confirmation bias in marketing

The fact that people are inclined to adhere to their convictions and unconsciously confirm their existing assumptions has been used successfully by companies in their marketing for many years. And you can easily follow their lead.

In essence, it is a question of finding out which implicit assumptions your customers have and confirming these via your marketing communications. In doing so you gain their approval, earn their trust and are one step closer to completing the sale.

Take advantage of clichés and stereotypes

German car manufacturers deliver quality, French wines are first rate, and Silicon Valley start-ups develop brilliant technological innovations. Many people hold beliefs related to industries or individual brands.

If there are positive assumptions about your company, or your industry has a reputation of trustworthiness, you can seize upon these assumptions in your marketing communications. People will readily believe these communications as they will fit like puzzle pieces in your company or industry’s public image. Marketing is often more efficient when it builds upon positive presumptions.

Address pain points

What if your company is still fairly unknown or people do not have positive associations about your industry in mind? This means you have a specific issue for which people hope to find a solution from you – and this lets you play off of confirmation bias. People want to believe that there is a solution for their problem. They are drawn to arguments that promise them a feasible remedy for it.

The more familiar you are with your customers’ pain points, the more clearly you will be able to address these in your sales argumentation, and the more likely your customers are to select your company over a competitor. However, confirmation bias has another impact: customers are often not fully aware of their problem. By addressing their paint points, you can confirm unconscious fears, only to then present your suitable solution to a customer who is now receptive.

Use testimonials

On the Internet, customers often find it difficult to judge whether a seller is trustworthy. And without this trust, there can be no sale. Even when customers are interested in a product, they are consciously or unconsciously looking for indicators to confirm they have found a serious and competent seller.

Satisfy your customer’s unconscious wish and publish positive customer testimonials or success stories to prove that your product is worth their money and that it is sensible to do business with you. By doing this, you give interested parties the necessary nudge to make the final click in their shopping cart.

Take care of existing customers

The larger the purchase, the stronger the customer’s desire to ensure that their money is being well invested. To address this, companies have many options. Why not send a thank you email after the transaction in which you suggest a few practical tips for using your product, offer a discount for another product, or attach a free goodie?

And even if the purchase occurred less recently, it is worthwhile investing in your relationship with your customers – especially when using subscription models. Make your customers feel good about using your services wherever you can. Mailchimp provides a good example of this: As soon as one of their users sends out an email campaign, they are congratulated with a quirky virtual high five. This lets them leave the application with a smile on their face and feeling affirmed in their choice of an email provider.

Test hypotheses

The tips we that we have provided up to this point address how you can implement confirmation bias in your marketing so that your communications with the customer are more effectively planned. Many marketing departments, however, forget that they themselves also are liable to confirmation bias.

Reflect regularly on which implicit assumptions underlie your marketing campaigns. The risk is large that people utilize their marketing tools in such a way that the analysis confirms their own beliefs. Pointedly examine the counter-thesis and try alternative approaches, for example, through A/B tests.

The bottom line: a mix makes it work

Confirmation bias is one of the cognitive distortions that is the easiest to comprehend. Everyone is familiar with the filter bubbles in social media and knows how difficult it is to dismiss some of their convictions. Using these facts to your advantage in marketing, unlike the IKEA effect or the endowment effect, is for many, however, less obvious. At the same time, both large and small brands have for a long time consciously toyed with confirmation bias.

If you want to optimize your marketing, you should take common reasoning errors into account for your marketing measures: for example, the anchoring effect, selection bias and the decoy effect. The larger your arsenal of psychological mechanisms, the more efficiently you can address potential customers in their journey toward becoming actual customers.


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