Consumer Psychology: How to Elevate Your Copywriting With Cognitive Biases

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that humans are irrational and unpredictable. No one understands this more than marketers. Every time you think you’ve got a handle on what influences their buying behaviour, your conversions drop and you’re back to square one. That is, unless you utilise the power of cognitive biases and copywriting!

We’re going to explain what cognitive biases are, delve into the ways in which they fuel buyer behaviour and show you how they can be leveraged to supercharge your copywriting. Let’s get started!

What are cognitive biases?

In order to understand cognitive biases, we’ve first got to do a quick recap on heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow people to make decisions and solve problems quickly, or with limited information to hand.


Kahneman (2011: Thinking Fast and Slow)

Think of the number of words that can be constructed from the two sets of letters below.


You knew almost immediately, without generating any instances, that one set offers far more possibilities than the other, probably by a factor of 10 or more.

In this example, the availability heuristic has allowed us to quickly come to a conclusion without having to waste any time working it out.

Heuristics don’t always lead us to the right outcome, however. There are times when we deviate from rational judgement, which is known as a cognitive bias.


After watching several news reports about plane crashes, you decide that it’s far too dangerous to take a trip abroad. Instead, you choose to take a road trip. This is a cognitive bias that has been caused by the availability heuristic.

Even though you’re statistically more likely to crash in a car than a plane, the availability of these plane crash reports in your mind convinces you otherwise. 

It’s important to note that while cognitive biases can be caused by heuristics, other factors can also play a role, e.g., emotions, motivations and social pressures.

Why are they important?

Cognitive biases affect the way in which your target audience thinks and feels about your marketing campaigns. If you’re able to tap into these biases, you can create powerful copy that will influence your audience’s behaviour and, ultimately, convert them to actual buyers.

Cognitive biases and copywriting

There are hundreds of cognitive biases out there, but we’re going to focus on nine that will help you elevate your copywriting and take conversions to the next level.

1. Attentional bias

Peeling caution sticker on yellow wallImage source: Markus Spiske (via Unsplash)

The first cognitive bias on our list is attentional bias. This refers to our tendency to pay closer attention to things that we frequently think about, or feel strongly about. If you live in an area with a lot of theft, for example, you might find yourself worrying about home security—leading to you paying closer attention to TV ads for home alarms.

You can take advantage of this bias in two different ways: by targeting key emotions in your audience to push them to pay more attention and by increasing your audience’s familiarity with your brand.

Targeting emotions

Look closely at your buyer personas and think about what pain points your product/service is targeting. Are you offering your audience security against a key threat? Your copy and ads should target their fear to push them to take action. Will your product save them money? Emphasise the happiness and peace of mind that buyers gain with their purchase.

If you’re able to evoke some kind of emotion in your audience, they’ll be more likely to pay closer attention to your ads and, ultimately, make a purchase.

Increasing familiarity

The more your target audience sees your brand name and corresponding advertisements, the more likely they are to remember you, trust you and eventually make a purchase.

This bias isn’t just useful for brand awareness, it can also be used for promotions. Let’s say you’re looking to convince people to purchase your new eBook on Copywriting 101. To make the most of attentional bias, you would promote it repeatedly in a variety of ways:

  • Making posts about it on your social media platforms before the launch
  • Creating a video teaser of what to expect
  • Publishing an announcement on your blog
  • Emailing subscribers to offer them a sneak preview

2. Bandwagon effect

Close up of sheep on field during the dayImage source: Sam Carter (via Unsplash)

As you’ve probably guessed by the name, the bandwagon effect refers to our tendency to think or act in a certain way just because other people think or do the same. In other words, we’re talking about herd behaviour.

You can take advantage of this by adding social proof to your website, e.g., reviews, case studies and endorsements. By creating the impression that everyone is using your product or service, you’re giving potential customers a reason to follow suit.

You can maximise the effectiveness of your social proof by carefully considering its placement:

  • Rating scores should be in clear view on your homepage
  • Testimonials and reviews are most persuasive near CTAs
  • Statistics can work best on checkout pages

You’ll also want to work on your social media strategy. By increasing your followers, posting regularly and adding more user-generated content into the mix, you can convince people to give your brand a try.

3. Belief bias

Woman in blue and white shirt looking upImage source: Eunice Lituañas (via Unsplash)

If you’ve dedicated a portion of your web copy to telling potential customers how much your product will help them do everything and anything, you might want to rethink your strategy. Courtesy of the belief bias, we’re hardwired to believe that if something sounds too good to be true, then it is too good to be true.

As important as it is to persuade people to try your product/service, you need to manage expectations. Don’t oversell your product or promise things that you can’t deliver. Of course, if you are capable of providing something that does sound too good to be true, back it up with firm evidence, e.g., reviews, statistics and endorsements.

4. Curse of knowledge

Shelf stacked with brown and white booksImage source: Zdeněk Macháček (via Unsplash)

So far, we’ve been focusing on cognitive biases in relation to your potential customers. This particular bias, however, is something that could be affecting your decision-making, causing you to inadvertently push potential customers away.

The curse of knowledge bias is when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about things from the perspective of lesser-informed people. In your case, you might find yourself using complex jargon, or breezing through product features, under the assumption that your readers are as well-informed as you.

If you underestimate/overestimate your target audience’s knowledge, you run the risk of alienating them and causing them to bounce. This is why you need to take the time to get feedback from customers and try to view things from their perspective when you write.

5. False consensus effect

Person holding up cut out paper peopleImage source: Andrew Moca (via Unsplash)

Following suit with the curse of knowledge, the false consensus effect is a bias that could be causing you to make the wrong choices in your marketing strategies. It refers to our tendency to overestimate the degree to which others agree with us.

Let’s say you’re having a brainstorming session with your marketing team. One of your team members brings up the prospect of adding a popup to one of your landing pages to increase conversions, only you shoot it down because everyone hates popups, right? Well, not necessarily. This could be a case of the false consensus effect.

Unless you’ve conducted audience research and A/B testing, you don’t actually know what works best for your target audience. Instead of assuming that they like/dislike the same things as you, look at your data first.

6. IKEA effect

Close up of an IKEA store during the dayImage source: Jueun Song (via Unsplash)

Ever had to put together your own furniture? If the answer is yes, odds are that you value that piece of furniture more than the other store bought pieces in your home. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the IKEA effect. Consumers place a disproportionately high value on products that they have had a role in creating—hence the reference to IKEA, a furniture retailer that sells items that require assembly.

If you’re offering customers a product or service that can be customised or tailored to suit them, emphasise this in all of your copy. Your audience will be more likely to make a purchase, and spend more money on it, if they feel like they’ve played a role in its creation.

7. Primacy effect

Close up of a start line on a running trackImage source: Austris Augusts (via Unsplash)

The primacy effect is a bias that results in people remembering primary information better than information that is presented later on, e.g., a subject reading a long list of words is far more likely to remember words towards the beginning than words in the middle.

Kahneman (2011) conducted a study that presented subjects with one of two sentences:

  • Steve is smart, diligent, critical, impulsive and jealous
  • Steve is jealous, impulsive, critical, diligent and smart

Both sentences contain the same information and yet researchers found that subjects evaluated “Steve” more positively when given the first sentence, compared with the second one. This is because the first items, which are easier to recall, are positive on the first example and negative on the second example.

So, how do you leverage this cognitive bias?

Make a strong first (and last) impression

Whether it’s the introduction to a blog post or landing page, or the first line of your latest email or social media post, you need to catch your audience’s attention whilst laying out exactly what they’re going to gain from your copy. Your readers will retain this information, even if they decide to bounce.

If you’re writing long form copy, consider rounding it off with a list that summarises what you’ve covered and emphasises the value that your readers have gained.

Think about the order

Given that your readers will remember the first items of a list or sentence more than the middle to end ones, you’ll need to think carefully about the order when it comes to product/service benefits, feature lists, listicles and even product descriptions.

8. Risk compensation

Pair of white and black dice on blue textured backgroundImage source: Markus Winkler (via Unsplash)

Risk compensation refers to the way in which people adjust their behaviour depending on the perceived risk. We’re much more likely to take risks if we believe that it’s safe to do so and less likely to if safety isn’t assured.

In the case of your audience, they risk wasting their money on a product/service that they might not be satisfied with. If they believe that this is a strong possibility, they’re not going to make the purchase.

You can prevent this from happening by offering them assurances…

User-generated content

Whether it’s customer selfies, reviews or blog posts, clear evidence that other people have purchased your product/service and are satisfied with it will reduce the perceived risk and persuade your audience to bite the bullet.

Free trials/samples

Forking out money for a product/service is far less daunting when we know that we can try it before we buy it. If your potential customers are abandoning their carts, or about to exit your website, send them an email or popup directing them to a free trial or sample page.

Money-back guarantee

The ultimate assurance you can give your customers is a money-back guarantee. By telling them that they can get their money back if they don’t like your product/service, you’re eliminating all of the perceived risk involved.

9. Zeigarnik effect

Wooden scrabble pieces spelling out incompleteImage source: Brett Jordan (via Unsplash)

The Zeigarnik effect, otherwise known as the open loop effect, refers to our tendency to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. This could be a report for work, or even your latest Netflix binge. Whatever it is, we are naturally driven to seek out a conclusion.

You can easily leverage this in your copywriting. By piquing your audience’s interest, without delivering anything, you can push them to take action.

Point out problems and solutions

We’re all looking for ways to eliminate pain points or make our lives easier, so if you can target these in your blog post titles, email subject lines, or even social media posts, your audience will be much more likely to click through to satiate their curiosity and close the loop.

Let’s take a look at some examples with our blog posts…

In the examples above, we tease our readers with tips and advice that can improve their copywriting without giving anything away. If they want to gain this valuable knowledge, they need to click through to the rest of the post.

Tell them what they stand to gain

If you’re trying to push your audience to sign up to your newsletter, join your online course, or download a PDF, you can’t just rely on an eye-catching title or introduction. This is because the action of signing up to something is perceived as more taxing than reading a simple blog post.

To combat this reluctance, you need to give your audience a list of open loops that they’ll feel compelled to close through taking the action you want them to take.

As an example, let’s say we’re trying to convince our readers to sign up for a copywriting course we’re holding on a new landing page. Just before our CTA, we’d have a list that details exactly what our readers stand to gain…

You’ll be learning:

  • How ten simple copywriting formulas can increase your conversions by 152%
  • Why user-generated content is so vital to increasing sales
  • How A/B testing can take your open rates to the next level

The beauty of the Zeigarnik effect is that you can leverage it in pretty much any copy. Whether it’s an email, landing page, or social media post, adding open loops will increase the chances of your audience taking action.


More on Consumer Psychology…

Looking for more insights into the minds of your consumers and ways to influence their buying behaviour? Check out the other instalments in our Consumer Psychology series…