3 Cognitive Shortcuts Exploited by Marketers

These marketing ploys hack your mind and your wallet.

Posted Nov 02, 2019

Artem Beliaikin/Pexels
Source: Artem Beliaikin/Pexels

To handle the massive flow of data we're exposed to each day, humans are constantly relying on mental shortcuts. These quick and frequently unconscious processes play a major role in how we make decisions. 

These quick ways of choosing can make us more efficient. However, they also provide easy targets for external attempts to sway our purchase decisions. Here are three cognitive shortcuts exploited by marketers and how to see through these psychological ploys for our money.

1. The framing effect

Let’s be honest—we all appreciate a good deal. But how do you know you’re not actually getting the short end of the stick? The framing effect is a potent way marketers can get us to believe something is a bargain, even when it’s not.

Framing refers to the idea that we see things differently depending on how they are presented. For example, if you see an expensive car next to a slightly less expensive (but still overpriced) car, the cheaper car seems like a steal. Deceived by the framing, we buy into an illusory discount and are duped into thinking we came out ahead. 

Framing also explains why marketers will sometimes emphasize percentage price reduction and other times a dollar discount. Framing a sale as 20 percent off an original price of $5 sounds much better than $1 off. Similarly, $200 off of a $20,000 car sounds more enticing than 1 percent off, even though the actual discount is the same.

2. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is another way our purchase decisions can be swayed to our detriment. This is basically the idea that we rely heavily on initial information (the "anchor") in our subsequent decisions. As you might expect, problems arise when we forget to question the initial reference point.

For example, imagine a salesman shows you the base price for a new TV and then tells you he can take $50 off. Anchoring on the original price, you feel like this is a great deal. But the initial offering could be $100 overpriced, so even with the discount, you'd still be paying way too much.

In the same vein, if we're told we can save a bunch of money by buying a product in bulk, we can become anchored on the concept of saving money and wind up with far more of the product than we really needed. 

3. Social proof 

To successfully navigate a complex world, many of us rely on the wisdom of the crowd. The idea that we copy the behaviors of others forms the basis for the concept of "social proof." In theory, this seems like it shouldn't be an issue. If people, in general, make good choices, and many people are doing something, we should do the same. 

However, we can be led astray when marketers provide a few cherry-picked testimonials or ambiguous claims, like a product being “the most preferred” without providing any context or substantiation. We can also fall victim to celebrity or "expert" endorsements that try to convince us to buy a product, even though the paid opinions in the ads have little connection to the quality of the item being sold. 

Countermeasures

Marketing practices are, in essence, a series of attempts to sway our decisions. This doesn’t make them inherently bad, as they do provide us with useful information. But when marketing exploits known weaknesses in our rational decision-making, we have to employ countermeasures.

The first step in counteracting the impact of framing, anchoring, and social proof is just to know they exist and look for instances where they are put into play. Next, you can lower the chances of falling for these cognitive traps by creating opportunities for critical thinking and a more objective viewpoint. 

One quick way to gain perspective is through comparative shopping. Next time you're considering a substantial or unplanned purchase, do a quick price search for similar products online to see if the "special deal" or "20 percent discount" translates into any objective savings. Make sure your focus is on the actual price, not the discount. 

Next, create some time and space for further consideration. For bigger and unexpected purchases, spend some time away from the product before deciding to buy. Does that new car seem like as good of a deal when you think about it outside the flashy showroom? Are you as interested in that bulk purchase when you get home and see your small cupboard space? 

Finally, enlist the help of people you can trust. If you're repeatedly falling victim to marketing ploys, find a friend who generally makes reasonable purchase decisions, and ask for their opinion prior to making your next big purchases.