The Biases That Shape Us (Even When We Don’t Know It)

In my previous blog, I talked about why creating an emotional experience through design is so important to a product/site/app’s success. But if you think about it, it’s odd that this is the case; we humans like to think we’re rational beings, superior to our animal counterparts; when we make decisions – to buy a BMW over a Tesla, to get our coffee from Costa instead of Starbucks – we make them objectively, based on logic – not instinct or emotion.

But… that’s rarely the case.

Of course, my preference is completely rational…

Just as we often behave differently to the way we think we will, our cognitive biases, both conscious and unconscious, impact almost all of the decisions we make (especially if these decisions need to be made quickly) and our perceptions. They can also make us easy to manipulate and persuade.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the biases that we all ‘suffer’ from, and examples of how these can impact our real-world decisions… even when we don’t know it.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency to favour information that aligns with our own world-views and can even extend to us interpreting data in a way that affirms what we already suspected or believed. Confirmation bias often rears its head in emotionally charged situations but can also impact our smaller day-to-day actions and decision making.

Here’s an example of confirmation bias at work: you’re looking to grab a coffee on the way into work, but your usual choice – Costa – has a queue running down the block, and you know you’ll be late in if you wait. So, you opt for a Starbucks. But when you get your latte, it’s stronger than you normally have, and they haven’t put the caramel syrup in that you asked for. “See,” you think to yourself, “This is why I go to Costa.”

However, your brain has neglected to recall all the times you went to Starbucks before and had a perfectly fine – even good! – latte. Instead, it’s decided to use this one incident as evidence that your worldview – Costa > Starbucks – is correct.

But confirmation bias, shockingly, doesn’t just apply to coffee; you see people’s confirmation bias come to light in political discussions (two people of opposing political views can read the same article and both feel that it reinforces their beliefs), for example. There’s not a lot you can do to counter people’s existing biases towards your brand or organisation – just make sure that your user experience is optimised across all touchpoints as much as possible.

The Halo Effect

The ‘halo effect’ is a bias whereby you make a judgement about a certain thing or person, based on their associations. For example, if your friend recommends you listen to a new band, you’re probably going to be slightly more inclined to give said artist a chance than if a co-worker had recommended them to you. This is because there’s more of a “halo” around your friend’s opinion – someone you like, know and trust – than an acquaintance’s.

You see this in practice all the time; any time a company has a logo splash, testimonials page or a case studies page, it’s because they know that having a big, well-known brand as a client will impress and reassure potential clients.

Hootsuite’s case study page is a great example of the ‘halo effect’

This is similar, in a way, to our need for social proof: that, if “everyone else is doing it” (using a product), we’re more likely to be persuaded to do so ourselves.


‘Anchoring’ is when individuals place too much emphasis on an initial piece of information or a fact, resulting in skewed perceptions and judgements. It’s a way of framing a situation and setting expectations.

Wine menus are a great example of this. Some restaurants will list their most expensive wines first, making the customer scroll through pages before they get to something more suited to their price range… often, their selection will end up being more expensive than what they would have chosen otherwise. Essentially, what might normally be seen by the customer as a little expensive suddenly looks cheap by comparison!

The Decoy Effect

The ‘decoy effect’ is a tactic commonly used in marketing; it’s a phenomenon where consumers will have a sudden change in preference between two options when also presented with a third option – a “decoy”.

Wikipedia uses MP3 players to demonstrate this, so I’ll do the same:

 MP3 Player AMP3 Player B

Given the above choices, it wouldn’t be unlikely that you’d get a split between people opting for more storage and those opting for a lower price.

But that changes when you add another option…

 MP3 Player A (Competitor)MP3 Player B (Target)MP3 Player C (Decoy)

In the above set, suddenly MP3 Player B – the product we’re actually wanting to sell – looks like a much better deal because, for less of a difference in price, you’re getting more storage. But if ‘Player C’ wasn’t around, Player B wouldn’t be framed in such an obviously positive light. The “decoy” has been deliberately positioned to make the ‘target’ option feel like much better value, ultimately persuading consumers to opt for a slightly more expensive option than they might otherwise have chosen.

At Bunnyfoot, we’re experts in designing experiences for the quirks (and biases) of the human mind. Want to know more about what we do and how we do it? Get in touch.

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We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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