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How Confirmation Bias Can Sabotage Your Decision-Making

minute read

Have you ever ordered dinner in a restaurant, and after telling the waiter your order they comment “Good choice!”. How did it make you feel? Did you begin looking forward to your meal a little more, knowing that your choice was a “good” one? If so, you’re not alone. When taking a risk, making a choice, or buying a product, people love to hear that their decision was a good one. So much so, that they’ll ignore information that directly conflicts with this belief.

Why? It’s an example of a psychological phenomenon known as Confirmation Bias.

What is Confirmation Bias?

Coined by psychologist Peter Wason, Confirmation Bias describes peoples’ tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and remember information that confirms their choices and beliefs. It's a type of cognitive bias, which is another word for a common error in how our brains think and process information. 

As author Harper Lee put it,

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Social Media Filter Bubbles: Confirmation Bias in Action

One of the most common examples of Confirmation Bias are social media feeds and the algorithms that drive them. They’re notorious for helping people unconsciously double-down on Confirmation Bias. 

When users only like, share or comment on a certain type of information from sources they like - because those sources already confirm what they believe - many algorithms will say “Hey! We noticed you’re really into a certain type of news - and we want you to engage more, so we’re going to show you more of this same type of biased news.”

Eventually this cycle of confirmation bias driven by recommendation algorithms that suggest more of the same kind of content can create what’s known as a filter bubble. 

Algorithms use this information to guess what information a user wants to see next. But the problem is, when you show a user more of what they’ve already seen, they can stop seeing information that disagrees with their views, and isolates them in these filter bubbles. 

That’s why it pays to consider the implications and ethics of how we apply confirmation bias, the contexts in which we’re confirming, and the extent to which we show users information they agree with.  

Lettuce head

How Confirmation Bias Can Help Create a Better Customer Experience

When a customer decides to buy a product, they are more open to information that confirms their purchase was high quality, healthy, a good value, or environmentally sustainable. Customers want to believe they’ve made the right choice, so communications that support that belief are well-received and better remembered.

This moment in the customer journey can also be subject to Post-Purchase Dissonance (also known as Buyer's Remorse), so it's important to give customers positive information that confirm their choice. 

Confirmation Bias can be applied to any phase of the customer journey. But the best time to apply it is after customers have made a decision or a purchase. That’s because Confirmation Bias can be used to create positive memories of an experience.

Why are post-purchase moments so powerful? It’s down to a behavioral science principle known as the Peak-end Rule. This rule states that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak and its end, not the average of every moment of the experience. When customers have better memories of an experience, they’re more likely to recommend and repeat it.

Best-in-class brands know that Confirmation Bias is a critical psychological tool when creating customer experiences. Three brands that demonstrate how best to apply this effect are Mailchimp, Pret a Manger, and Holiday Inn Express. Here’s how they apply Confirmation Bias to their experiences:

1. Show your users some love, like Mailchimp

“You can delete a bad tweet, but you can’t unsend an email.”

— Sean Blanda

Mailchimp High Five Gif

A list of customers’ email addresses is one of the most powerful assets a business can leverage. People who want to see your marketing messages in their inbox have incredible sales potential. So it’s no surprise that one of the most nerve-wracking things a small business or startup can do is send an email out to its list.

Every time a company presses “send” on an email, they risk damaging their reputation with a mistake or losing customers forever if they unsubscribe. Mailchimp, a popular email service provider, knows this feeling well. As Aaron Walter, Director of User Experience, Mailchimp put it:

“I became a Mailchimp customer in 2005 and I knew the feeling of sending out a campaign and being totally stressed out about it. Because once you send an email, you can’t really suck that back in.

I just always thought, ‘Someone should come into my office and high five me right now! I’m deserving.’”

It’s this insight into customers’ mindsets that spawned a gif of an animated monkey giving users high-five. The gif appears right after customers have sent an email, and taken a huge risk. At that moment, customers need confirmation that they’ve made the right choice. And that’s exactly what Freddie, Mailchimp’s cartoon monkey mascot, gives them.

In fact, Freddie’s high-five has become so powerful that it’s actually spawned a subbrand, complete with merchandise. And according to Inside Design, Freddie’s high-five is now one of the “most cited examples of user empathy”.

2. Reconfirm a customer’s choice with quality messages, like Pret a Manger

Pret a Manger is a fast-casual sandwich shop located in nine countries across Europe, Asia, and North America. A brand that prides itself in serving natural and organic food quickly, Pret isn’t shy about showcasing their quality ingredients.

What’s interesting about Pret’s experience is how many posters and messages in the seating area tell simple stories about food quality. Many fast-casual restaurants would spend this post-purchase time trying to talk customers into buying more food while they’re in the store. But Pret knows that post-purchase is the best time to talk about their natural and organic ingredients.

Pret’s customers have made a decision and taken a risk on Pret because they feel it has good quality natural and organic food. By applying Confirmation Bias during this time in the journey, Pret is reconfirming that their customers have made the “right choice”.

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3. Call attention to what makes your experience amazing, like Holiday Inn Express

Holiday Inn Express and Suites Sign and Logo

Source: wolterke - stock.adobe.com

When Holiday Inn decided to launch its SimplySmart bathroom makeover, it believed it had created something special. High-powered showerheads by Kohler, upgraded linens, and a curved shower rod that created more space for bathers were just a few of the innovations in which the brand invested millions.

But the challenge of telling customers about these upgrades, without boring them to death, was real. When booking a budget hotel, how many of us make our decisions based on a point-by-point comparison of the bathroom features? Instead, we often make a decision by recalling our last visit, or going on the word of a friend.

Often the last thing people do before checking out of a hotel is spend a lot of time in the bathroom — showering, blow-drying their hair, and using the hotel soaps and lotions. And as we know from the Peak-end rule, time at the of an experience is disproportionately important to forming memories.

Knowing how critical the end of the guest experience is, Holiday Inn Express created signs in their rooms and bathrooms detailing the SmartShower, and calling lots of attention to the upgrades. The copy on the signs was evocative. For example, when describing the new showerheads, the signs read:

“Sleek, stylish brushed chrome finish, three powerful spray settings, and a unique pressure compensating flow regulator that automatically adjusts to keep water pressure strong and steady.”

By pointing out all of the things that the SmartShower was doing well, customers began to notice and believe Holiday Inn Express. Customers began thinking to themselves, “The showerhead did seem really nice, and the towels were fluffier than normal. Hey, I made a pretty good choice when I picked Holiday Inn Express. Good job me.

The Bottom Line

“I want to believe.”

— FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder

Confirmation Bias can be a powerful, and surprisingly emotional, tool to use when designing customer experiences. Although it can be applied anywhere in the journey, using it after customers have made a purchase or taken a risk will help ensure their memories of the overall experience are good.

To apply Confirmation Bias, ask yourself:

  • What are the moments in our customer journey where customers have made a decision or purchase? Are there any specific product attributes we want to reconfirm at that time?
  • Is our product or experience a risky one? How would customers feel if we gave them a virtual pat on the back to tell them they’ve made a great choice?
  • How can we be more empathetic toward customers after they’ve taken a chance on our experience? Can we show our appreciation or call attention to some extra effort and love we’ve put into elements of our experience?

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About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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