A List of Persuasion Techniques Review (Part 2)

Cognitive dissonance

When we do something that’s not in line with our beliefs, we change our beliefs

When there’s a mismatch between our beliefs and behavior, we experience what Leon Festinger calls ‘cognitive dissonance’. By nature, we humans are strongly motivated to reduce this dissonance.

We can’t rewind time to change our behavior, but we can change our beliefs and cognitions to align with that behavior. In order to reduce dissonance, we simply alter our beliefs, which we actually do a lot.
There are 3 ways to do so:

  • we lower the importance of the dissonant elements,
  • we add new consonant beliefs to create a consistent belief system, or
  • we change an existing cognition.

Cognitive Dissonance is strongly related to ‘self-consistency‘ and is sometimes referred to as “adaptive preference formation”.

Clarifying story:

Ancient Greek fabulist Aesop used a great example of cognitive dissonance in his fable “The Fox and the Grapes”.

When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides that in retrospect, he does not want them after all… as they were not ripe yet.

Online persuasion tips:

Integrate cognitive dissonance in your business and sales strategies in such a way that your customers have to internalize buying and using your product.

  • Play hard to get.
  • Be expensive.
  • Be hard to get rid of.
  • Don’t offer (large) incentives when asking your customers for a favor (such as ratings and reviews).
  • Even test providing incentives for not buying your product (e.g. in your checkout page).

Choice-supportive bias

I chose this option, therefore its features are the best

We have a tendency to remember our choices as being better than they actually were. We over-attribute positive features to the options we choose. On the other hand, we do the opposite for options that we did not choose: We attribute negative features to the non-chosen options.

Scientific research example:

Imagine researchers ask you several times to choose between two classic cars, each with a couple of distinctive features. After you make your choice and finish the study, the researcher thanks you and ask you to come back in 7 days.

One week later you come back. The researchers (Henkel & Mather) show you the same two car options again along with the list of features. For each feature, you’re asked to indicate whether it belongs to the classic car you chose, to the car you rejected, or if it’s an entirely new feature (Henkel & Mather (2007) actually tested with ‘used cars’, but I like classics better…).

Do you think you’d remember the features correctly? Maybe randomly? Or, has your memory misattributed features to the chosen and not-chosen old-timers? It turns out that the latter of these outcomes happens. Your memory has a choice-supportive bias in remembering which features belong to which classic car. Henkel & Mather found that you associate more positive features with the classic you chose and associate negative features with the one you didn’t

In other words: your memory is your best friend: it tries to help you feel good about your choices.

Online persuasion tips:

In order to get your customers to attribute positive features to you (and negative ones to others):

  • Test by asking your users why they visit your website or use your app.
  • Ask them why they bought and use your product.
  • Show previously visited pages and bought items!

Further reading on choice-supportive bias

  • Henkel, L.A.; Mather, M., Journal of Memory and Language 57 (2): 163–176 (2007). “Memory attributions for choices: How beliefs shape our memories”.
  • Choice-supportive bias on Wikipedia

Ambiguity Aversion

We prefer options that are certain

People tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known (over an option for which the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown).

The ambiguity effect is relevant when a decision is affected by a lack of information, or “ambiguity”. The effect implies that we tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is highest. We’re simply reluctant to accept offers that are risky or uncertain.

Two remarks:

  • Over an initial range, women require no further compensation for the introduction of ambiguity whereas men do.
  • Curiosity increases attention, thus is induced by mild doses of uncertainty.

Scientific research example:

Imagine a bucket with 30 red, black, and white colored balls. Ten of the balls are red (for sure), the others are ‘some combination’ of black and white (all combinations being equally likely).

Now you can choose between one of two games:

  • The Red Game: drawing a red ball wins you $100
  • The Black Game: drawing a black ball wins you $100

Which game do you choose to play? Well, most people tend to favor the red game. Now, the probability of picking a winning ball is the same for both games (1 in 3, and we know there are 30 balls). So why is the red game preferred? Simply because the probability of winning is known. The red game is less “ambiguous”.

One of the theoretical explanations for this ‘Ellsberg Paradox’ considers our experiences with deception. Humans typically feel suspicious when we’re not told what the probability of an event is. This is because often — in real life and commercial situations — it’s usually in favor of the supplier. Our brain is simply afraid of, and therefore aversive towards, being fooled.

Online persuasion tips:

  • Be specific in your offer and communication style (instead of offering vague information).
  • Be specific about what happens when people click on a call to action.
  • Provide ‘feed-forward’ information (‘what’s next is…’).
  • Use fixed discounts instead of a chance to win.
  • Try to find the ambiguities in your competitor’s offer and emphasize your certainty there.
  • Guarantee your offer (money back, no cure = no pay).
  • Within your portfolio, make your cash cow the ‘most certain offer’.
  • Finally: In places that need improvement, experiment with small doses of uncertainty.

An A/B test example:

The Dutch Travel company Kras.nl (part of TUI intl.) switched from paper catalogs to online ones quite a while ago. However, customers still indicate feeling uncertain (e.g. “[when] booking online with virtual travel documents and digital payments, I feel less sure that I indeed have a flight and a hotel”) when shopping online. For this reason, they decided to test the hypothesis that adding information about what one gets when one books would lead to a higher number of bookings. They ended up selling 20% more vacations!

Another nice example is the effect of using URL-shorteners: Since they introduce ambiguity in where the shortened link will take you, they tend to get less clicks.

Further reading on ambiguity aversion:

  • Ambiguity aversion on Wikipedia
  • Lex Borghans, Bart H.H. Golsteyn, James J. Heckman, Huub Meijers , NBER Working Paper №14713 (2009); “Gender Differences in Risk Aversion and Ambiguity Aversion”

Belonging & Conformity

We prefer to behave in approval with our social groups

Belongingness is our innate need to form and maintain strong, stable, interpersonal relationships. More than we’re often consciously aware of, we want to be part of a peer group, community, and society in general.

Once we feel like we belong to a group, we’ll conform to it and internalize the group’s values and norms. We typically conform to both injunctive norms of our groups (implied approved behavior by the group), and to descriptive norms (common behavior among group members). We may even behave adversely towards groups that we don’t want to be associated with.

Your brand, products, and/or services are social objects that inherently form and play a role within social groups. Therefore, belongingness and conformity have multiple strong, persuasive effects that are relevant to you and available for you to take full advantage of. Does your prospect want to belong and conform to your group?

Scientific research example:

Imagine that a friendly lady knocks on your door and asks for a donation for charity. She hands over the list to write down your name and donation… A recent study by influence guru Cialdini (2011) revealed that you’re more likely to donate when the previous donors are people you know, like your friends and neighbors.

Ryan, Stiller, and Lynch (1994) found that children will increasingly internalize their school’s extrinsic regulations and conform to them when they have a higher sense of belonging to that school (the more secure and cared for they are by parents and teachers).

Paul Rose and JongHan Kim (2011) found that the higher someone’s need to belong is, the more he seeks the opinions of others before acting (and the more someone is self-monitoring, the more likely he is to be an opinion leader).

Online persuasion tips:

  • Support the forming of groups, connections, and dialogues among your customers and prospects (be it on your own platforms or on previously existing ones).
  • Find and nourish the influencers within the more important social groups (e.g. on Facebook or niche platforms).
  • Aggregate as much information about a specific customer or prospect and show that you’re approved of by his or her social peer group (from the device he uses, to more advanced log-in or Facebook profiling data).
  • Show your customer that members of his social peer group are buyers, users, and advocates (e.g. with ratings, reviews or Facebook piles).

An A/B test example:

A large (unfortunately not-to-be-named) Dutch corporation tested a different image on one of their product pages. The new image did nothing for their overall conversions. However, a deeper analysis revealed that Mac users showed a huge boost in conversions. Guess what… the new image showed someone with a MacBook Pro…

Paradox of choice

We love either 3 or 5 options

If we’re offered just one option, our choice is to either go for it or not. However, if we’re offered two choices, we automatically start choosing between these two, forgetting about the “or not” option existing silently in the background. Not choosing at all becomes a much less obvious option. Therefore, offering more than one option is usually more persuasive.

On the other hand, if we’re offered too many choices we tend not to make a choice at all. Too many choices are simply too difficult for our simple ratio.

That’s the paradox of choice.

Scientific research example:

Imagine you’re in the business of selling pens, and you have 20 different pens in stock. A prospective customer enters your store. How many pens do you show him?

It turns out that showing about 10 pens is your best bet. Shah & Wolford (2007) found that showing fewer options, as well as more options, will decrease your chances of selling. Buying behavior in their experiment was a curvilinear function of the number of choices, peaking at a value of 10 pens.

Online persuasion tips:

  • Prevent providing only one call to action. Instead, add a link or another CTA as a secondary choice.
  • If you have only one product or service, try to create one or two variations of it (like a black or white iPhone).
  • With a multitude of comparable products, find your product’s optimal choice number via testing. It’s probably in the 3–20 range (In my own experience: The more complex and less comparable your products, the fewer options you should offer).
  • The same applies for amount of USPs
  • And for the number of links on a page.

Further reading on the paradox of choice:


We prefer situations that we have control over

Autonomy is the innate and universal desire to be causal agents of our own lives. Our perception of our autonomy influences our behavior. A high level of perceived autonomy comes with feelings of certainty, reduced stress, and a high level of ‘intrinsic motivation’. This increases the likelihood of persistent behavior. On the other hand, taking away our autonomy (e.g. by introducing external rewards and deadlines) undermines our intrinsic motivation as we grow less interested in it.

Situations that give autonomy (as opposed to take it away) also have a similar link to motivation. Studies looking at choice find that increasing a participant’s options and choices increases their intrinsic motivation to said activities. Autonomy is considered one of the three basic, universal, innate, and psychological needs (within the popular “self-determination theory”).

A clarifying story

“Once, there was a man. Kids would come to play on this man’s lawn to have fun. The man began to be annoyed by this, and strangely enough… he paid them a dollar to come play on his lawn. The kids happily took the dollar and played on his lawn. The next day, the man told the kids that he did not have enough money, so he could only give them 50 cents to come play on his lawn.

On the third day, he told them he could only give them a nickel to come play on his lawn. The kids were displeased with this, and told the man he could forget that, and that they would not play on his lawn for such a cheap reward.”

(McCullagh, 2005)

What happened? The man took away the autonomy in their urge to play on his lawn…

Online persuasion tips:

If you want users to repeatedly visit and act:

  • Prevent mandatory fields and steps
  • Introduce choices (even trivial ones work)
  • Allow users to freely go backward and forward
  • Be careful with external rewards and deadlines

If you want to change the usual choice of your customers, introduce an external reward for their current choice and then take it away again…

An A/B test example:

The Dutch hotel chain ‘Van Der Valk’ tested whether it’s better to indicate mandatory fields (“*=Verplicht veld), or to emphasize optional fields (*=Optioneel veld). Changing to optional fields boosted booking form completion rates 24.7%.

Mandatory fields

Optional fields (+25% conversion):

Further reading on autonomy:

Visual cueing

Our focus of attention is highly influenced by visual cues

A visual cue is a signal that your brain extracts from what you see. It directs your attention and interest to something in your field of perception.

Now, only 1% of what you see actually enters through your eyes (the rest is — surprisingly accurately– made up by your brain). You can only see really well with your ‘fovea’: The area in the dead center of your retina that’s the size of your thumbnail from an arm-length distance).

Therefore, it’s important to direct your customers’ fovea-attention, for example, by using visual cues in the periphery of their vision. These cues can be obvious (e.g. an arrow) or very subtle (e.g. text in the form of an arrow).

Especially on websites, visual cues have proven extremely effective.

Two clarifying stories

The reason why the moon looks huge on the horizon is simply because our bubble of perception cannot stretch out 380,000 kilometers. It runs out of space. So as compensation, we see the buildings within our perceptual bubble and our brains make an executive decision about the size of the moon relative to those buildings.

Imagine you’re at an airport trying to make it to your gate. Arrows make it easy for you — and others — to figure out where to go. Now, imagine that all these arrows disappear… How many people would find their gate in time for their flight? In an airport, visual cues are vital. They turn places into passages, direct crowds, and urge you to ‘move on’.

Arrows provide the same functions in your online dialogue…

Online persuasion tips:

  • Use a visual cue to emphasize your most important content/USP/CTA.
  • If you have multiple chunks of content, visual cues will help your customer consume these chunks in a logical, manageable order.
  • If you have more content than what’s visible (below the fold or on next pages), use cues to direct attention to it.

An A/B test example:

Online Dialogue tested the effect of visual cues for the Dutch hotel chain ‘Van Der Valk’. Adding the cues (downward pointing arrows), led to:

  • 10 times more visitors scrolled all the way to the bottom of (rather long) hotel homepages
  • 57% more conversions via the hotel homepages

Further reading on visual cueing:

Endowment effect

When we own goods, we value them higher than when we don’t

How does our perceived value of items change depending on whether or not they’re ours? The effect that ownership has on perceived value (also known as ‘divestiture aversion’) shows that, when there are two identical products, we tend to value the one we own more.

In other words: We expect more money when selling a product than what we’re willing to pay when buying it.

Scientific research example:

The prototypical studies into the endowment effect involve mugs and other equally priced products.

Imagine Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman gives you such a mug. Shortly after, Daniel asks if you want to trade ‘your mug’ for any other goods. Typically, you’d want twice the money for the product he gave to you than you would for a product he didn’t…

Behavioral economics guru Dan Ariely did a similar study involving a lottery with tickets for the NCAA final. He found that his students were asking 14 times more for the ticket when they won it than they were willing to pay for a ticket in the first place.

Online persuasion tips:

  • Use trial periods so your customers feel like they already own the product.
  • Imply a ‘return for free’ policy (obligatory in a lot of countries).
  • Among existing customers, experiment with asking whether or not they are willing to sell the product for the price they paid. This might make them realize how much they value your product.
  • If it works, show your prospective customers how unwilling your existing customers are to sell.
  • When a customer leaves you, try to make him realize the good things he’ll lose.
  • Realize that prospects probably value their current choice more than they rationally should.

Online tests:

Facebook tested the effect of mentioning the fact that you’ll lose contact with your friends via Facebook when you deactivate your account. This ‘you’ll no longer have this’ technique turned out to be quite effective:


We are more likely to perform actions when we believe in our own competence

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in his/her own competence. According to Albert Bandura — who defined self-efficacy theory — this personalized belief in our ability to succeed significantly affects our behavior. The more competent we think we are (a high level of perceived self-efficacy), the greater our intrinsic motivation to act is.

There are at least three types of information that enhance our self-efficacy online:

  • Our own behavior: When we’re successful at something, we become convinced that we will be successful at that same thing again.
  • The behavior of others: When we see others being successful with a certain behavior, we become convinced that we’ll also be capable of success with that behavior.
  • Rewarding feedback: Positive feedback contributes to the idea that we can achieve our goal by persisting.

Scientific research example:

Two groups of students are engaged in solving a Soma Cube puzzle. Both groups solve the cube within three sessions. The only difference between the two groups is the second session. Group A receives verbal praise and positive feedback during their second session, whereas group B does not. Guess what happens in the (identical) third session? Yep, group A solves more puzzles. Why? Raising our self-efficacy increases our intrinsic motivation to act.

Online persuasion tips:

  • Provide instant feedback on correct behavior (i.e. green check marks appear when fields are filled in correctly).
  • Visualize the simplicity of procedures (a progress indicator with three — five clear steps, an easy looking infographic, etc).
  • Show existing customers who have previously bought items or taken actions.
  • Use ‘how-to’ pages (and possibly videos) where you show your visitor how easy it is to act.
  • Use social proof (i.e. 12,452 others bought a product with us today).

An A/B test example:

Luke Wroblewski (former Chief Design Architect [VP] at Yahoo! and Lead User Interface Designer at eBay) studied enhancing self-efficacy by providing positive feedback on a typical web registration form. This positive feedback involved displaying green check marks when a user filled in a correct answer (see video).

The form with inline validation showed compelling improvements (Luke studied 22 average users in a usability test setting):

  • 22% increase in conversions
  • 31% increase in reported satisfaction
  • Participants strongly preferred the positive feedback version

This study found that positive feedback (the green checkmarks) increased users’ perceived self-efficacy, therefore increasing intrinsic motivation to complete the form.

Further reading on self-efficacy:

Base rate neglect & Base rate fallacy

We’re really bad with numbers

We tend to base judgments on known specific numbers and percentages, ignoring necessary general statistical information. We often erroneously over-evaluate options with high numbers and percentages because of this, ignoring what subset or base these numbers come from…

Scientific research example:

Imagine you’re the mayor of a city with a million inhabitants and 100 known criminals. Your citizens want you to decrease the crime rate. The police chief suggests installing a surveillance camera with automatic facial recognition software. The software has a failure rate of only 1%.

Is installing the camera a good idea? Most people would say so.
However… Imagine that the whole city passes in front of the camera. You’ll catch 99 of the 100 criminals but you’ll also wrongly condemn 9,999 innocent citizens…

Online persuasion tips:

When mentioning numbers or percentages:

  • Supersize your numbers and percentages by changing ‘the base’ (e.g. 99% of our active clients give us a 5-star rating, instead of 80% of all our clients).
  • Do the opposite for negative numbers (0% of our active users are unsatisfied with our product, instead of 20% of our users are unsatisfied).

Further reading on base rate neglect and base rate fallacy:

Self-generation memory effect

It’s easier to remember when we thought of it ourselves

We remember information better when it’s generated by our own minds than when we read or hear it from someone else. So, if you want your customer to remember something, a highly effective strategy is to have them generate the information themselves.

Scientific research example:

Imagine you’re given a list of simple multiplication problems. Some calculations include the answers and for others the answer is absent. You can calculate missing answers in your head (or using a calculator). You are asked to remember as many of the outcomes as possible…

In a study like this, Crutcher & Healy (1989) found that you’ll remember the answers that you calculated yourself best…

Online persuasion tips:

  • Don’t show all of your USPs, but ask your customers to think of one or two reasons why to buy your product themselves.
  • Use a feedback tool to ask why customers are considering your offer (open answers).
  • Even in your shopping basket or on your thank you page, you could test by asking the customers why they bought your product.

Further reading on the self-generation effect:

Perceptual incongruence

“We automatically pay attention to things that we did not expect”

Only 1% of what you see actually enters through your eyes. Your brain itself fills in the rest. Your brain does this by using prior visual information and established assumptions about the real world. 99% of what you see is ‘computed vision’, based on highly advanced algorithms, providing you with a surprisingly accurate visual image.

Perceptual incongruence occurs when the true visual information gathered via the eye doesn’t fit visual algorithms. When this happens, parts of the brain starts asking for more information (because it doesn’t necessarily fit the algorithm).

Therefore, incongruence can have large effects in directing attention.

Scientific research example:

Imagine you visit a website that displays two banners. One banner shows a brand that fits nicely within the theme of the website you’re visiting. The other does not. Which banner do you think you will remember better and find more interesting?

Dahlén and others (2008) studied this effect of placing ads on thematic ‘congruent’ platforms, versus ‘incongruent’ platforms. As hypothesized, they found that placing ads in thematically incongruent media enhances ad processing and advertising evaluations, and produces stronger perceptions of existing brand associations…

That’s incongruency at work.

Online persuasion tips:

  • Do something unexpected when someone enters your website (or other platform).
  • Within your own platforms, use incongruent colors, fonts, images, etc. for important content and interactions.
  • Purposely advertise on thematically incongruent platforms.
  • Make the total look and feel of your ads incongruent with each advertising platform.

Online tests:

What breaks the pattern, gets clicks!

Further reading on perceptual incongruence:

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This is the 12th post out of 12 for the mini-degree in Conversion Optimization I’m doing at CXL Institute.




Creativity is just connecting things. I publish a weekly newsletter with some thoughts, side project updates and weekly findings: http://rinaldo.email/

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Rinaldo Ugrina

Rinaldo Ugrina

Creativity is just connecting things. I publish a weekly newsletter with some thoughts, side project updates and weekly findings: http://rinaldo.email/

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