Consumer Psychology: How Heuristics Can Improve Your Copywriting

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In order to write effective copy that will drive your target audience to take action, you have to get inside their heads. We’re not talking about buyer personas and target market research here. You need to know what it is that influences their decision-making so that you can start to wield your copy with purpose. This is where heuristics and copywriting come into play.

We’re going to walk you through what heuristics are, why they’re so vital and how you can use them to take your copywriting to the next level. Let’s go!


What are heuristics?

In psychology, heuristics are mental shortcuts that enable people to make decisions, solve problems when dealing with limited information and simplify complex questions. These shortcuts might not always be correct, but they do help us avoid the one thing that we hate doing for too long: thinking.

When you’re mulling over which restaurant to eat at, what route to take to work, or even who to trust, you’re automatically using these heuristics to speed up the process.

Why are they important?

When we decide whether or not to buy something, we don’t always have the inclination to weigh up every single factor involved. It’s time-consuming and takes up more effort than we’re willing to part with. Instead, we use heuristics to instinctively take action, rather than depending on logic.

If you’re not accounting for heuristics on your website and in your copywriting, they will turn your target market against you. If, however, you learn more about how they work, you can start to better understand your target market and influence their behaviour accordingly.


Heuristics and copywriting

Every bit of copy that you write needs to be designed to make things easier for people trying to make a decision. The way in which you do this will depend on the type of heuristic you’re targeting…

1. Affect heuristic

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The affect heuristic is when you make decisions based on the emotions you’re feeling in the moment. If you’re in a good mood, for example, you might focus more on the benefits of something rather than the risks—and vice versa if you’re in a bad mood!

Example

Kahneman (2011: Thinking Fast and Slow)

An executive invests tens of millions of dollars in the stock of Ford Motor Company. When asked what had motivated his decision, the executive says that he’d been impressed by one of their automobile shows. Rather than looking at the value of the stocks, and weighing up the risk and reward involved, this executive relied entirely on his gut feeling to push his decision-making.

He substituted the question “Should I invest in Ford stock?” with the much easier question, “Do I like Ford cars?” and made his choice accordingly.

You can take advantage of this heuristic when you’re writing about your product/service by emphasising how it can help people. Is it taking care of a certain pain point? If so, your customers are more likely to view it positively and potentially purchase it. You can also encourage people to view your brand in a positive manner by highlighting testimonials and reviews which mention instances where you’ve gone above and beyond.

It doesn’t end there, though! If customers have a positive experience with your product/service and brand, they’re likely to view your other products in the same way, even though they’ve never bought them. This is known as the halo effect—a cognitive bias that causes someone’s perception of a person, brand or product to be influenced by a positive trait or experience.

Unfortunately, the opposite can also be true. If a customer has a negative experience with your product or service, it will sour their perception of your brand. This is otherwise known as the horn effect.

2. Availability heuristic

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The availability heuristic helps us make a fast decision based on the first relevant answers or examples that spring to mind. Often, this can lead to people believing something simply because it’s readily available in their mind, even when statistics show otherwise.

Example

Think of how people reacted to watching the film Jaws for the first time. Before watching it, no one would have thought twice about going to the beach and enjoying a dip in the sea. After watching it, people couldn’t stop worrying about being attacked by vicious sharks. This is despite the fact that the odds of getting attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million, and the odds of getting killed are less than 1 in 264.1 million. 

You can take advantage of this heuristic in a few different ways. Firstly, if you’re selling a physical product, you could offer customers samples. This will help them to familiarise themselves with your product, which means that they’re likely to remember it further down the line. When they later try to make a decision as to what food to buy, or which skincare product to purchase, yours might be the one that springs to mind first.

Secondly, by emphasising the pain points that your consumers will have to endure without your product/service (not quite shark attack pain, but you get the gist!), you might be able to persuade them that they need your product more than they actually do. Prominent placement of reviews and testimonials will help to drive this point home as well.

To ensure that your product stands out and becomes the first available answer to a customer’s pain point, you need to be memorable—whether that’s with a snappy slogan, a well thought out landing page or a fun ad.

3. Loss aversion heuristic

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The loss aversion heuristic is exactly what it sounds like. People are motivated more by the fear of loss than by the possibility of gain. We want to avoid loss whenever we can.

Example

Kahneman (2011)

You’re offered a gamble on the toss of a coin. If the coin shows you tails, you lose $100. If the coin shows you heads, you win $150.

Is the gamble attractive? Would you accept it?

Though you stand to gain more than you’d lose, you’re still likely to reject this gamble. The fear of losing $100 is far more intense than the hope of winning $150.

You can take advantage of this heuristic with free trials. By giving customers the opportunity to test something without spending money, you’re helping them avoid loss and increasing the perceived value of your product.

The loss aversion heuristic is something that a lot of businesses think they understand. You can see this in offers like “Last day to buy X!” and “X% off today only!”. This scarcity tactic, when done correctly, has the potential to increase your conversions. The key word here, though, is correctly.

If you send customers an email at the beginning of the month saying “Last chance to buy X!”, only to send it again at the end of the month, you’re going about it the wrong way. Is it really a last chance if you’re giving customers more than one chance to buy?

Loss aversion is only a useful tactic if people actually believe that there’s something to lose by not making a purchase. If they know you’re going to send them another offer shortly, there’s absolutely no urgency motivating them to make a purchase now.

4. Representativeness heuristic

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The representativeness heuristic enables us to make quick decisions by making assumptions that are based on pre-existing stereotypes.

Example

Kahneman (2011)

You see a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which of the following is a better bet about the reading stranger?

A. They have a PhD
B. They do not have a college degree

Representativeness would have you assuming that the answer is A, but in reality, many more nongraduates than PhDs ride in New York subways. 

When we look at people, products and situations, we’re automatically comparing them to an existing prototype or stereotype in our minds. Marketers take advantage of this by making their product look similar to brand-leading ones—mimicking their font, colour and packaging.

This isn’t accidental! These marketers know that people are more likely to purchase their products because they’re so similar to the brand(s) they like—subconsciously, your brain is telling you that these products should be great.

This is why it can often backfire when you attempt to break from the norm with your products. When customers look at your product, they’re going to automatically compare it to the prototypes in their heads. If you stray too far from these prototypes, you’ll confuse your customers and make them reluctant to take the plunge.

When you’re writing copy about one of your products, try highlighting features that are similar to other popular products that your target market is likely to have bought. This overlap may convince them to try your product.

5. Anchoring heuristic

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The anchoring heuristic refers to our tendency to rely on the first piece of information to anchor the rest of our decision-making.

Example

Let’s say you’re browsing a website to buy a new laptop. The first laptop you see is listed at £850. The next one you see costs £380. Because of the order of these products, you’re automatically going to view the second product as cheap, which may influence your decision to purchase it.

This is something you’ll want to bear in mind when you’re playing around with the order of your products/services on your website.

Studies have also shown that this heuristic can influence people to increase the number of products they purchase when buying limits are put in place.

Example

Kahneman (2011)

A supermarket in Iowa ran a sales promotion for Campbell’s soup with a 10% off discount. On some days, a sign stated “limit of 12 per person” and on others it said “no limit per person”. When the limit was in place, shoppers bought an average of 7 cans, which was twice as many as they bought when the limit wasn’t in effect.

When people are given a limit, they instantly assume that it’s in place because everyone wants it. This implied desire and potential scarcity pushes people to buy more than they originally intended. You can also see this with buy 1 get 1 free offers, whereby people feel obligated to buy more even though they don’t necessarily need to.

This approach works well with website promotions and email marketing campaigns. Customers are likely to react with urgency when they see firm evidence that a product is in high demand. Buying limits convince them that they need to react now and not later to avoid missing out entirely.

6. Authority heuristic

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The authority heuristic is when people believe the opinion of someone simply because they view them as an authority. If we don’t know much about a specific field, we automatically look to a professional, or an authority figure, for answers and help. It’s a logical response and one that marketers take full advantage of.

Example

Let’s say you’re watching a Colgate advert. It tells you that their new toothpaste is dentist-approved. This automatically has you nodding your head—surely if anyone is qualified to decide whether a toothpaste is effective, it’s a dentist, right? To top it off, the ‘dentists’ in the ad are dressed in lab coats, looking completely professional. This further cements the validity of the claim that the toothpaste is dentist-approved. As a result, you’re more likely to trust them and purchase their product.

So, how do you become an authority? Though it can be difficult to compete with leading brands, you can build up trust with your customers and gradually present yourself as an authority in your field by…

  • Highlighting any partnerships you might have with well-known businesses that your customers might recognise and trust.
  • Showing off any awards or digital badges to highlight your hard work and knowledge in the field.
  • Including any links to articles that have been written about you from reputable sources.

This can tie in with social proof. If you’ve got hundreds or thousands of five star reviews, it implies that your brand is reputable and trustworthy. This can go a long way to cementing your business as an authority.


And there you have it! You should now have a better idea of what it is that motivates your target audience’s decision-making. By combining heuristics and copywriting, you’ve got a real recipe for success.

For more helpful insights and advice, keep your eyes peeled on the Supersede Blog!

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