Are Biases Losing You Sales?

Neil McKay
  • Cognitive biases can affect your sales.
  • Your opinion may not resonate with your customers’ own views.
  • But, your customers may value what other customers say.
  • Cognitive biases can work in your favour, but base your decisions on data not opinions.

I’m biased and so are you. Even those who think they’re unbiased just don’t recognise that they have a bias blind spot.1

So, let’s look at some of the revenue impacting biases that can harm your online business and see whether we can turn them around in your favour.

1. False-consensus Effect: The entire world doesn’t really think like you do

People who assume that their own beliefs/opinions/values reflect those of society suffer from false-consensus effect bias. Everyone hates carousels because they move too quickly before you can read them, everyone closes pop-ups without even reading them and so on, for example.

But, what they really hate is distracting, poorly executed advertising devices that intrude and deflect them off their scent trail.

2. Knowledge Bias: You know way too much to think like a customer

It can be difficult to look at your website like a customer. Your knowledge about your products/services is just too great and everything on your website is abundantly clear to you; therefore, involve others who can help you and make it easier for your customers to see what you have to offer using content they will understand.

And, that goes for design and customer experience too. You need people who aren’t biased through their involvement with your original designs and can look at your website objectively.

3. Anchoring Bias: Time to weigh anchor

We get anchored by something we know, recognise, or have developed/implemented and it keeps dragging us back. It could be that you’ve decided on a price and you’re not budging, and your customers have seen similar products cheaper elsewhere and they’re judging you by that.

Of course, there are all sorts of other things that can anchor your business down: customers’ perceptions of your quality of customer service, flexibility on pricing, shipping and delivery performance, etc.

Thorough research will identify anchoring biases; then it’s a matter of weighing the anchors and sailing to where revenue improvements are possible.

4. Recency Bias: We remember the recent past more readily

What we saw the last time we were on a website can affect how we behave on subsequent visits. That’s recency bias. It’s similar to when we get asked to recall our top favourite songs, people, friends, etc. Those we dealt with most recently will be at the top of the list—and we remember those from way back, but our memories of those in the middle of the list can be fuzzy.

Jeremy Smith, writing for “Neurosciencemarketing” blog has this to say.

“If you have three pricing options, then you are most likely to sell the middle option most often. If, however, you have more than three options, then your last and first options should be the hottest sellers. Price and plan accordingly.”

5. Selective Perception: The problem of being selective

Selective perception is based on expectation. Blonds have more fun, for example. A study in the late 1970s discovered that people’s heart rate changed after drinking what they had been told was an alcoholic beverage when talking to an attractive member of the opposite sex.2 It was as if they were intoxicated, but in reality being told they’d consumed alcohol had the same behavioural effect.

The lesson here is that we need to be careful with our research questioning, we have to avoid leading test participants and customers when we are looking for open and truthful answers to help develop our hypotheses and treatments. Likewise, you need to know what your customers really want from your website.

6. Seeking confirmation to our preconceived ideas

When we believe something, no matter how misguided or ill-conceived it is, we naturally look for something to back it up. We may not recognise anything wrong with our way of thinking, or we may be holding out to prove a point that we’re anchored to (see above).

In practical terms, you may feel redesigning a low performing form or repositioning a call to action will undoubtedly improve conversions and you’ll go all out to prove yourself right. But, trying to change your customers’ preconceptions is difficult and you may never do it.

Instead, you may be better concentrating your efforts on things like consistency of your website, on-time delivery, great service and so on.

7. Don’t look for trends when they’re not there

Finally, I want to mention clustering illusions. You’re looking at a mass of data and you think you can spot a pattern. You get so wrapped up in it that you decide it must be true, but in reality, you’ve let yourself get sidetracked by something that wasn’t there.

If you integrate data enough, it will tell you anything you want! So, be careful with every analysis you perform. Check and check again before you decide on your next step. Get a colleague to check the data too. Do you both see the same thing?

Don’t let your ego get in the way

Memories of our greatest sales achievements can be wonderful. But it’s natural to overstate success. Remember when we sold thousands of those X products—all we did was knock a £1 off the price and we struggled to keep up with the demand.

Maybe, the reality was you sold several hundred and the profit margin wasn’t as good as you’d hoped; so, go back and check your data.

Base all your decisions on research and analysis

Thorough conversion optimisation research will help identify biases, whether they’re internal or external or both. You should rely on what the data are telling you and not your thoughts about your customers’ biased opinions, what you or a member of your team thinks is a good or bad idea, what other companies are doing, or the latest trend you’ve just read in the marketing or business press.

Nothing is better than working from data captured and collected from your website and customers. Trust that to show you the way to improve your revenues.


[1] E Pronin, D Lin, and L Ross, “The bias blind spot: perceptions of bias in self versus others”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369–381 (2002).

[2] GT Wilson and D Abrams, “Effects of alcohol on social anxiety and physiological arousal: cognitive versus pharmacological processes”, Cognitive Research and Therapy, 1, 195–210 (1977).