This week was very insightful. I’ve enjoyed my online classes with the CXL Institute.

The next topic that I learned about was “people & psychology.”

People can be irrational. People are cute. People are bad. People are good. What is important to keep in mind is that while internet and technology has changed at a rapid pace, the human brain has been pretty much the same for millions of years. And probably will continue to be.

When to use psychology in CRO

Persuasion is the tip of the pyramid, first the fundamentals have to be taken care of before moving to applying persuasion techniques. This doesn’t mean that we should hold back from using them. Some of the principles — like social proof and urgency — can be very effective. Some principles should also inform our design and copywriting.

If you try to apply all the persuasion techniques at once, they won’t work as well. We have to use them sparingly for full effect, and choose principles that are a good fit for a particular case — don’t try and force it. An obvious attempt at manipulation will backfire.

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways. We as optimizers need to be aware of the kinds of biases that exist, and that we and our target users might be affected by.

Bias blind spot is the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself. We need to be aware of this, and know that we aren’t excluded from being being biased. It is a good idea to go through the full list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia. Some of the more common biases you will face during CRO work include: False-Consensus Bias, when you think the world is like you. It’s the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them. You have your opinions and you think everyone’s on board with you — except they’re probably not.

People tend to assume that other people have the same opinions and preferences they do. This can be subtle, and it can be extreme, but it puts all small group feedback into question. It can be very subtle, but in general, you need to take individual feedback very delicately. Everyone is going to look at things with their own individual biases, and not understand that others see things differently. You see the world as you are, but you are just one person. There are lots of people in this world, and perhaps you’re the lone weirdo. Never assume that people — especially target users of a website you’re working on — are like you.

The Curse of Knowledge

You can’t “unknow” what you know. If you know everything there is to know about family law, you think about the matter way differently that somebody who is totally uninformed. You can’t put yourself in their shoes anymore — you have the curse of knowledge. I can’t think in terms of “I don’t know what conversion optimization is”. When I think I can, I’m wrong.

For example, once you know something, it’s impossible for you to un-know it. If you added new buttons or links onto the website, you can’t analyze the site like a user — trying to figure out whether people will see the button or not. You know it’s there. Ask someone else to look at the page.


Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. You might be obsessed with testing static images vs sliders on the home page, or trying tens of versions of call to action buttons — thinking that’s where the problem is since you saw that mentioned in user testing. Sometimes you can optimize locally (get the button right), but in order to increase your conversions more, you need a radical change (its actually a local maxima issue). If you’re anchored, you are limited by that initial piece of data and might never try a radical redesign.

Egocentric Bias

This is the bias about recalling the past in a self-serving manner, for example, remembering one’s exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as bigger than it really was. Or remembering all the conversions gains from last year.

Recency Bias

Recency Bias is the bias that has to do with cognitive error tricks you into preferring fresh data over older data. As an example, have you ever sought a book on a topic, and chose one title over another based solely on publication date? You may or may not have made the best purchase. Newer is not always better.

Selective Perception

Selective Perception means clicking on a big orange button, or the green small one that’s very hard to see. Expectations affect perceptions. This is critical in qualitative research: the way you phrase questions will affect the responses. You must do your best to not lead people.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is having a tendency to test things that confirm their beliefs. They have a hypothesis “This form is just too small” so they test making it bigger, and if it’s successful by a small bit, they have their feelings confirmed. For example, if you make this form even smaller, it would increase conversions. However, maybe it wasn’t the form size at all, but a much larger factor was the image above the form, or the color of the text. The confirmation bias makes people try and reinforce their own ideas, which isn’t always the best result. In this case, you should check yourself: do you really want your hypothesis to win? Are you emotionally invested in an idea?

Congruence Bias

Congruence bias is the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, instead of testing possible alternative hypotheses. For example, you may research a website, and come up with a hypothesis as to how to improve conversions — and then you test it. By doing this you are not testing an alternative hypothesis that could bring bigger wins. If you have a hypothesis for what to test, try to come up with multiple alternative hypotheses — as different as possible — and then try and find a way to test both of them — not just one that you strongly believe in.

Clustering Illusion

Clustering illusion is the tendency to erroneously perceive small samples from random distributions to have significant “streaks” or “clusters”, caused by a human tendency to underpredict the amount of variability likely to appear in a small sample of random or semi-random data due to chance. You may think that you spotted a trend — and base all your optimization and hypotheses off that trend. But in fact it was not significant at all, but a small sample. Just because there is a similarity, doesn’t mean there is a pattern. This is critical to be aware of when doing conversion research, especially qualitative — you think you see a trend, and start looking for it, ignoring other, often more valuable nuggets of information.

Emotional and Rational Decision Making

People make decisions using both emotional and rational decision making. The emotional side often wins, but people justify their decisions rationally (often without even being aware of it). Most neuroscientists agree that well over 90% of our behavior is generated outside of consciousness. We are more slaves to our biology than we realize. Our rational minds represent a very small layer floating atop a vast well of unconscious drivers. This explains the political fights that never go anywhere or discussions about creationism vs evolution — it’s extremely difficult to win these fights with rational arguments. For this reason, businesses who understand biological programming, and can leverage it, possess an enormous advantage.

Decision making is not logical

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides — shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision. So at the point of decision, emotions are very important for choosing. In fact even with what we believe are logical decisions, the very point of choice is arguably always based on emotion.

The story of two chickens
This story helps explain why larger images work better. Research participants were showed two photos. One was a nice looking, plump chicken. The other was a chicken that looked thin and sickly. Participants were told that the plump chicken was a natural chicken, and the thin chicken was genetically engineered. The researchers informed half of the participants that natural chickens were healthy but less tasty, and genetically engineered chickens were tasty, but less healthy. The other half were told the opposite. Overwhelmingly, both halves of participants preferred the nice plump chicken, but their reasoning was different. The first group claimed it was because they valued health above taste, and the second group said it was because taste was more important.

Neither group seemed to justify their choice based on how they felt about the chicken’s looks. They felt compelled to justify their emotional choices with non-emotional reasons, to the point that the two groups found completely opposite ways to justify the same decision.

Key learnings of this week:

People like to think that they are rational, but they are not. In this chicken example, (Product) Images can have a huge effect on emotional decision-making.

When selling, for example, you must create a vision for prospects to bring about the decision on their part. In the end, people will make the decision because they want to, not because you tell them. You should avoid telling people what to think or what’s best. You should help them discover for themselves what feels right and best and most advantageous to them by presenting your case using contrast and simple, tangible language and demonstration. Their ultimate decision is based on self-interest — that’s emotional. “I want this. This is good for me”.

Serving both:

When we’re selling a product, we need to make a compelling emotional and rational case. “You users should be able to fall in love with it emotionally, and justify it rationally.” Lead with emotional and inspirational content: large images, aspirational headlines. Emotional decision making dominates, so it’s critical to lead with that.

Once they’ve made a decision that they want it, people want to be able to justify the purchase. Hence, back everything up with specifics, so they can rationalize the decision. For example, people don’t want to think that they keep making impulsive choices — it makes people feel better when they’re able to back up the reasons why they made a specific purchase. It is wise to assess website and product copy presentation to see whether emotional and rational decision making both have been addressed.

I look forward to learning more next week!