Occasionally, conversion optimizers discover psychological nuggets that turn their world upside down and push their conversion rates through the roof.

One of those psychological nuggets is the choice-supportive bias.

Before I explain this nifty psychological powerhouse, let me just get something out of the way. Some people don’t understand why or how CRO and psychology go together. They are confused, perplexed, and probably just need an arm around the shoulder and a cold beer.

But me? I argue that psychology is crucial to conversion optimization. This is kind of like my mantra. If they made a t-shirt that had such a phrase, I might actually buy it and wear it in public. Maybe.

(But maybe not.)

If you don’t get ahold of that fact — psychology plus CRO equals awesome — then this article will be boring. If you do get this simple truth, then the article you’re about to read will prove invaluable.

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Trying to prove to some people the harmonious blend of psychology and CRO is like trying to push an M1 Abrams up a sand dune using a piece of wet grass. It’s slow going and hard work. I’ve had capable and intelligent people complain, “I feel like you’re trying to mix psychology and conversion rate optimization.”

Um, yeah. And your problem is …?

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Psychology drives conversion optimization. Relying on “hacks,” “tips” or “tricks” is like using firecrackers to launch a rocket ship. It’s not going to take you very far. Using the high-octane power of psychology is the true way to accomplish long-term conversion success.

It’s easy to throw around a badass term like “psychology.” What’s not so easy is importing these concepts into the nuts-and-bolts of conversion optimization. That’s why I’ve chosen to use my blog as a platform for helping more people discover the raw power that psychology can deliver to their conversion optimization efforts.

Now, after that 288-word trip around the barn, I’m ready to deliver yet another psychological powerhouse — the choice-supportive bias.

What the heck is the choice-supportive bias? I need examples.

First, allow me to explain what this is all about. The best way to explain it is to share some examples and then dive into a little bit of the psychology behind it.

HERE’S AN EXAMPLE:

You’re trying to figure out which smartphone to buy. Sheesh, there are a ton of options. Big screens, small screens. Lots of memory, crappy memory. High processing power, low processing power. Apple, Android. High-res camera, low-res camera. Voice command, no freaking voice command.

You weigh all the factors and try to find the phone that matches all these criteria. You pick up a phone. Buy it. Done.

Congrats, by the way. That’s a nice phone.

A few days later, your friend says, “Hey, man. That’s a really nice phone.”

“Aw, thanks,” you say, suddenly feeling pretty good about your wise choice.

“So, does it have the new custom ROM, you know the new CyanogenMod?”

You freeze, mind drawing a blank. Shoot. Does it?! Well, it probably … why, yes, of course it does! “Yeah. Yeah, it does,” you tell your friend, feeling even better about your choice.”

“Oh, sweet,” your friend crows, glancing admiringly at the svelte new phone. And what about the ADWLauncher? Did it come preloaded with that?”

Erm, you’re kind of not sure, but basically it probably does, sort of. So you look at your phone with satisfaction — “Yep! Sure does!”

Now, deep down inside, you’re not actually sure if your phone has the Cynowhat and ADWLjunk, but you think it probably does.

Why is your brain telling you that the phone has those features? Because your brain is your friend. It wants you to feel good about yourself. Even though your Android sucks, your brain helped you make that choice. It does not want to admit that it made a less-than-awesome choice.

You, with your Android in hand, are experiencing the choice-supportive bias. Your brain is giving you more affirmation, maybe false affirmation, about your choice than you deserve.

Another example, please?

You’re hiring a new candidate for a position. You interview two people.

Bob has the following qualifications:

  • Two master’s degrees (good)
  • Agency management experience (good)
  • Bad breath (bad)
  • Late for the meeting (bad)
  • Fell asleep during the interview (bad)
  • Sixteen DUIs (bad)

Sherry has the following qualifications:

  • A killer portfolio (good)
  • A regular contributor column in The New York Times (good)
  • Sixteen job changes in the past four years (bad)
  • No college degree (bad)
  • A substance abuse record (bad)
  • Lives in Albany (and your office is in San Francisco) (bad)

You eventually decide to hire Sherry. A month down the road, your VP asks you “So, can you tell me about the new hire, Sherry?”

“Oh, she’s really great. I’m really glad we decided to hire her!”

“Well, that’s great. What about her makes it a good fit?” the VP asks.

“She has the best portfolio I’ve seen in my life,” you answer truthfully. “And, dang, have you ever read her NYT stuff? Absolutely killer!”

“Wow, that’s great,” the VP smiles appreciatively. “Now, tell me about the not-so-great stuff. Anything I need to know?”

“Hmm.” You ponder the question — not so great stuff? Was there bad breath? No … What was her education? You can’t remember. “No, nothing bad at all! She’s an ideal candidate!”

What just happened? Did you just lie to your VP? Not intentionally you didn’t. But what about Sherry’s 16 job changes? The drug conviction? The telecommute? The lack of a college degree? Your brain deleted them from its working memory.

Why? Because your brain is experiencing the choice-supportive bias. You remember all the positive traits of the candidate you picked. But you can’t seem to remember those pesky little negative attributes.

More examples?

Are you beginning to see the choice-supportive bias? Once you recognize it, you begin to see it in all kinds of places.

  • You voted for Bush. You don’t think about the negative things. You think about the positive things.
  • You voted for Obama. And you don’t think about the bad things that have happened during his presidency. Only positive.
  • You choose a faith. And you tend to ignore some of the less-than-favorable aspects of its history.
  • You choose to buy a house. And you try not to dwell on the fact that it’s a bad investment.
  • You pick a car. And you tend to try not to believe that it’s actually a lemon.

In many cases (not all) the brain tries to support its choice. The brain has a built-in cognitive bias to strongly support any choice that it has made.

Thus, we have the choice-supportive bias.

Let’s define the choice-supportive bias.

To get all squared away on the details, let me provide the official definition of the choice-supportive bias.

The choice supportive bias is “the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were, where people tend to over-attribute positive features to options they chose and negative features to options not chosen.”

In one of the most influential research pieces on the choice-supportive bias, Mather and Johnson wrote:

Many studies … have demonstrated that after making a choice, people shift their attitudes to be more consistent with the decision they made. People also seem to remember their choices in a regret-minimizing fashion. … These choice-supportive asymmetries presumably reflect the constructive-reconstructive processes that are a key aspect of remembering. In particular, people may have the implicit theory that because one of the options was selected over the other, it probably had more positive features and fewer negative features than the other option.

Why does our brain do this?

The choice-supportive bias is rooted deep within the mechanics of memory.

Many times, we’re deluded into thinking that our memory is an all-or-nothing affair. We can repeat verbatim the first few lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” or we can list the names of the Great Lakes. But can you remember what your wife told you yesterday during supper? No. Nada. Blank.

The memory process isn’t quite so cut-and-dried. The memory is a cunning fellow, choosing to dispense with some memories, hold on to some, and distort others.

Sinister, huh? Yep. You don’t have much control over the under-the-hood process of memory retrieval and cognition. The mind tends to remember favorable facts instead of remembering unfavorable facts.

Why does it do this? Mentally, our minds favor a state of cognitive equilibrium — where there are no probing questions or prying doubts. In an effort to make the memory align with the mind’s desire for equilibrium, it variously suppresses and raises certain memories.

Good memories are worth hanging on to. Bad memories need to go. So says the memory, and so it happens.

Memory is malleable, changeable and often very deceptive. Memory takes quite a beating from the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for our getting stressed out and feeling all kinds of negative emotions. Thus, if we have memories that tick off the amygdala, those memories might not make it for the long-term.

I don’t know who you are, but your memory isn’t that great. Sorry.

I don’t know who you are, and i can't freaking remember

So, you’re saying that my mind is a chronic liar?

Basically, yes, your mind lies to you all the time.

It’s called a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a deviation of the mind in which the mind violates logic to make judgments and draw inferences.

Here’s what your brain does:

how brain does cognitive bias

(Image source)

Welcome to the wild world of cognitive biases, where things that you know are true are not true.

There are a ton of cognitive biases. If you think that you’re a pretty smartass person, then just take a quick peek at this list:

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • Congruence bias: The tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, instead of testing possible alternative hypotheses.
  • Conjunction fallacy: The tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.
  • Conservatism or regressive bias: A certain state of mind wherein high values and high likelihoods are overestimated while low values and low likelihoods are underestimated.

That’s just four. There are about 100 more on the Wikipedia entry from which I drew those.

If it sounds to you like your mind has some chronic condition, then you’re right. It has plenty of cognitive biases that are similar in kind and result to the choice-supportive bias.

the brain organ

(Image source)

And we suffer from these biases all the time. But the thing is, we don’t even realize it!

cognitive bias

(Image source)

You love your memory. It loves you back. But it also screws you.

Okay, so give me some more facts about the choice-supportive bias.

I want to make sure this lesson sinks in, so I’m going to fire off some of the most salient facts about the choice supportive bias:

  • If the choice you made affects broad life or career goals, the choice-supportive bias is more likely to happen (Mather, Johnson).
  • You are more likely to experience the choice-supportive bias when the result of doing so reflects better upon yourself as a person (Bahrick, et al.).
  • If you often engage in certain types or areas of decision-making, then those types of decisions are most likely to be affected by the choice-supportive bias (Mather, Johnson).
  • The older you get, the more likely you are to experience the choice-supportive bias (Mather, Johnson).
  • Relying on stereotypes or general knowledge makes it more likely that one would experience the choice-supportive bias (Mather, Johnson).
  • The more cognitive load and decision-making you are tasked with, the easier it is to experience the choice-supportive bias (Mather, Johnson).
  • If you made a choice in a negative context of any kind, then your choice is likely to be either forgotten or skewed by the choice-supportive bias (Mather, Johnson).
  • The longer ago, the more likely it is that you will account for knowledge gaps by using the choice-supportive bias. (Bahrick, et al.)

How can this whole choice supportive deal increase my conversion rates?

You’re thinking … Okay, this is boring … About to go check out BuzzFeed.

Wait a sec. Did you forget about conversion optimization? That’s kind of where we’re headed with this whole thing.

It’s time for the brass-tacks question. What does this have to do with conversion rates, if anything? And how can this little bit of knowledge make you more money or a more awesome person?

The choice-supportive bias has cameo appearances in many areas of CRO. In each of the following examples, you’ll see the choice-supportive bias, though it doesn’t have a dominating effect.

1. A seamless and pleasant UX is part of an overall favorable memory.

Conversion rate optimization and UX need to get married. Why? Because they’re perfect for each other. They have so much in common!

If you want to improve your conversion rates, then just improve your website usability and overall experience. The more enjoyable your UX, the more conversions you’ll have.

Nestled in this warm and fuzzy mashup of CRO/UX is the gleaming power of the choice-supportive bias. Remember how the bias flourishes in a context of happy memories?

Since this is true, you want to flood the user with happy memories. A broken or frustrating UX will destroy the good experience, and increase the angst level of the user on the crappy website. Choice-supportive bias destroyed.

Great, well-designed websites leave a favorable impression on users. When this happens, they are likely to retain favorable memories of the website as a whole. These favorable memories are transferred to the product, the price, the quality, and just about everything else.

Sniply has a well-designed website with beautiful responsive behavior. It’s sharp, clean and straightforward.

sniply homa page

Later, when I reflect on the Sniply product, I think about the great-looking website, and transfer that thought to the product itself. What’s the result? I’m more likely to buy Sniply.

2. Create affirming messages throughout the online experience, especially in the conversion funnel.

Let’s up the ante a bit. Where does the choice-supportive bias come into play more directly in the conversion process?

Things really start heating up in the onsite conversion funnel.

onsite conversion funnel

(Image source)

As your users are headed toward a purchase, their memory is intensifying its effort to bring in past knowledge and retain the present incoming stimuli.

Don’t forget the choice-supportive bias. You want the user to recall the right memories. In other words, you want to trigger the choice-supportive bias. That way, if and when the user abandons the shopping cart, they will retain positive memories of their experience with your product.

The shopping cart abandonment rate is 68 percent, but many of those abandoners will come back. What will help them to come back? In part, the choice-supportive bias will. They made a choice to proceed into the funnel, and you want them to later recall the high positivity associated with that choice.

The choice-supportive bias is especially active when the choice reflects positively upon the user herself. That’s why you want to trigger such a response during the actual conversion process. If the user does convert, then you want those self-affirming messages to remain there so the user will come back and buy again.

I love the way that the Dollar Shave Club does this. They have zero problem flattering you.

Basically, they provide affirmation at every step. Throughout the conversion funnel, the messaging gets warmer and more self-satisfying. By the time I’m done buying, I feel like I’m some sort of shaving god.

Dollar Shave Club product page

Jif does this with their peanut butter branding.

Excuse me, but did you just say peanut butter?

Yeah, peanut butter. Jif’s entire branding premise is devoted to the fact that choosy moms rock. Who wouldn’t want to be a choosy mom, making well-informed and awesome decisions for your awesome and well-behaved kids?

Jif's home page

Whether they realize it or not, Jif is creating a context that is perfect for choice-supportive bias input. Later, all those awesome choosy moms will have the self-validating memories of their choice to visit the blog, buy the peanut butter, eat the peanut butter, whatever. The choice-supportive bias will raise only the most positive aspects of the peanut butter.

If the lid was hard to get off, if the peanuts weren’t organic, and if the jar was dented on the bottom, those memories might be relegated to the cognitive trash bin. Why? Because the conversion process was laced with memories that are feeding the mind’s choice-supportive tendency.

3. Create auto-responders that validate the conversion action.

Since the choice-supportive bias causes us to attribute positive memories to past decisions, then you want to enhance those memories by whatever means you can.

One simple way to do this is with an autoresponder. The minute someone buys, signs up, or otherwise makes a choice, do something to affirm them. A message like “great choice!” is perfect. When it comes to actual purchases, be sure to automate messages that congratulate the user on their purchase.

Here’s an example of a simple “congrats email” from an Etsy purchase. It’s kind of short.

an example of a simple congrats email from an Etsy purchase

I would recommend that you make a congratulations message that is slightly more detailed. Point out at least three reasons why they made the best decision. That will fill up the choice-supportive bias with actual details to furnish the memory.

4. Make use of testimonials

A Kissmetrics article explains why testimonials, especially on pricing pages, help to reinforce the choice supportive bias:

Once we’ve made a decision, we tend to continuously convince ourselves of the great decision we made, which is why pricing pages are a great place to show testimonials. Showing others that people are happy, content and satisfied is a great way to increase pricing-page conversions.

Testimonials are great for all kind of reasons, but they also help to reinforce the choice-supportive bias.

Here’s the Sniply strategy:

the Sniply strategy

And, of course, we’ve got some pretty good testimonials going down at the Dollar Shave Club:

Dollar shave club reviews

Conclusion

The big idea behind the choice-supportive bias is that people will try to convince themselves that they made the right decision.

Whatever you can do to reinforce this belief will work to your favor. The beautiful thing is, the choice-supportive bias appears as a potential ally nearly everywhere you turn. There are ways to apply it in email marketing, checkout pages, pricing pages, landing page, CTAs, headlines and just about everywhere else.

The applications are limitless. And the power is undisputed.

Where and how will you use the choice-supportive bias?