Your Customer is Flawed but So Are YOU | The Gentle Side of Cognitive Bias

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Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of the book Predictably Irrational is one of the premier experts on the mental glitches we all share. Dan describes these glitches or cognitive biases as “systematic (non-random) errors in thinking” which depart from a logical course of action. In other words, its where our emotions or other motivations contribute to actions which aren’t in our rational best interest.

I will use myself as an example of this irrationality.

I happen to be a fan of Van Morrison, an Irish vocalist, best known for songs like Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, and Domino. While I’ve seen Van perform live on a number of occasions, his concerts in the U.S. are fairly infrequent. Having secured tickets for a concert not far from me, I observed that the resale market for those tickets was skyrocketing as Van’s concert approached. In fact, the asking price for the ticket went well above anything I would pay to see Van. (Sorry Van – I love your music but ten times face value is not something I’d pay).



That’s where Ariely comes in. Dan suggests that “rational behavior” would predict that I should sell my tickets when their value exceeded what I would pay for them. He also notes that people like me are “predictably irrational,” in that we do not resell the tickets, but instead, saunter off to the concert. For Van fans (a shortened version of the word fanatic), our fanaticism produces irrational action.

A couple of posts back, I began this series on cognitive biases by sharing research on “peak/end” theory. Those of you who are regular readers will likely remember the colonoscopy study I referenced (the rest of you surely can’t wait to read more on colonoscopies so you can find that post here).

In this post, I will take on another cognitive bias referred to as “confirmation bias” – not so much to highlight this form of human illogic – but instead to make peace with confirmation bias and to consider it as we craft engaging experiences with fellow predictably irrational humans.

Confirmation bias was initially championed by experimental psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s and has received considerable support through the years from other researchers like Raymond Nickerson, Margit Oswald, and Stefan Grosjean. In a nutshell, confirmation bias is the tendency for people to seek out information that validates their pre-existing views. Confirmation bias plays out when people select news sources that align with their political leanings or only retain information that supports their view on a given issue.

From a customer experience perspective, our goal should be to take the time early in our relationship with a customer to authentically create a positive impression of our brand and of our care for them (this investment in creating an early positive perception is referred to in behavioral economic research as “anchoring”). In essence, we are anchoring the initial positive view of our business in a way that enables a customer’s confirmation bias to look for validation of that perception. Conversely, as my friend and phenomenal speaker and author Mark Sanborn puts it, “When relationships start badly, they seldom get better.”

What we want is for customers to have a positive starting anchor point, so they can register positive elements of their experience which confirm their initial perceptions. That said, we have to give them positive moments throughout their journey to reinforce the positive initial impression. You can think of this in the context of the phrase – It’s hard to overcome a bad first impression – mainly because we are looking for evidence to prove that first impression.



I recently worked with a client that had data to show that if a customer was referred to them (started with an initial impression anchored to trust extended by a happy customer) they were significantly more likely to be emotionally engaged at the end of their journey with the brand (in this case more likely to score a 9 or 10 on the NPS) compared to a customer that was not referred. That data is totally in keeping with the confirmation bias. When business relationships start well, they often get even better!

I’d love to look at how you are creating positive “anchors” that favorably benefit from your customer’s confirmation biases and I’d like to start off strong during a discussion with you. Please contact me.

2 COMMENTS

  1. James thank you for your comment. You are most right to suggest a reasonable conclusion from my headline could be a harmful perspective on humankind and even more helpful in your emphatic clarification that there is no flaw. Thank you on both fronts. Behavioral economists and psychologists suggest that reasonable outcomes are often circumvented by emotion. Some cognitive/behavioralist use terms like “irrational beliefs” (Albert Ellis) or “dysfunctional thinking” (Aaron Beck) to group a number of “emotional thinking-based” cognitive distortions. Ariely’s work on “irrationality” is in a similar vein. I mean no harm by suggesting a flaw from a “Spockian” perspective. I love my humanity and hopefully suggest my predictably irrational side in the post. Also the word choice “gentle side” was intended to make peace with this phenomenally magical and complex thing called humanness! Thanks for making my post better with your observation and passion for doing what is right. Joseph

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