The Ultimate Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization (6): Tricking the Brain

The human brain isn't a rational piece of hardware that adds 1s and 0s until it arrives at an answer.

Instead, it's a dynamic, ever-evolving ball of rubber bands, constantly changing color, size and picking up bits of fluff as it bounces off the rug and onto the dog.

For the smartest marketers (who are well-versed in human behavior and socio-psychology), this means you can anticipate your target market's responses to certain stimuli and place those stimuli in the right place at the right time to drive your prospective customers towards a goal and optimize your conversion rates.

In short, you can trick the brain.

9. Hick’s Law and The Paradox of Choice

Hick’s law was originally theorized in 1952, so it’s not a new idea, or a complex one. Essentially, it makes the somewhat common-sense argument that decisions with more possible avenues take longer to make.

The Paradox of Choice is a more recent principle (study run in 2000, Barry Schwartz’ “Paradox of Choice” book in 2006). This theory states that more possible avenues do not simply complicate a person’s decision, but in fact demotivate them from making it at all.

Psychological Case Study

I’m sure you’ve heard the famous jam study already, but I’ll quote Schwartz’ article from the Harvard Business Review for a bit of context:

In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.

Schwartz goes on to say that “as the variety of snacks [...] increases, for instance, sales volume and customer satisfaction decrease. [...] These studies and others have shown not only that excessive choice can produce “choice paralysis,” but also that it can reduce people’s satisfaction with their decisions.”

For years, The Paradox of Choice (and Hick’s Law) have been gospel among advertisers, marketers and web designers.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple anymore.

Psychologists, in the past 10 years or so, have started to question the Paradox of Choice, several (from the University of Bael in Switzerland) going so far as to replicate the experiments - such as the jam study - which seemed to prove the Paradox.

However, after replicating and designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice based on an over-abundance of options, they couldn’t find any sign of the Paradox whatsoever. Benjamin Scheibehenne, the leading psychologist behind the Bael study, said “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.”

Nor, however, could they find a flaw in the initial experiment.

So what’s the deal?

I decided to ask Dr Schwartz, author of the 2006 book “Paradox of Choice”. Here’s his response:

"I have little doubt that some people, some of the time, will be so overwhelmed with options that they become paralyzed, or if they manage to overcome paralysis and choose, they will be less satisfied with their choice than they should be and that they would have been if they had chosen from fewer options. Scientific progress is often about finding the limits to discoveries, and we don't know the limits of the 'too-much-choice' effect yet. But the fact that there ARE limits does not make the effect any less real or any less significant."

The deal is this: the decision to buy (or not) isn’t so simple as this strawberry jam vs that strawberry jam.

  • When the choices are more disparate we value options (because we’re looking for a specific set of characteristics).
  • When we have more incentive to buy (either based on need, urgency, or any of the other factors mentioned in this guide) we buy no matter how many options there are.

So perhaps the Iyengar/Lepper study was a tad simplistic, but it’s still something you need to keep in mind when designing your website, creating your product pages, or offering pricing plans.

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

  • There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to the best structure for your business’ plans and pricing. Don’t jump headfirst into offering only one plan because of the jam study, but, equally, don’t jump headfirst into offering 100 plans because you want to give people options.
  • The best practice is this: give people enough options so they can compare and determine the best value for money, but give people few enough options so they don’t get overwhelmed and think the process too complicated.

#10. Decoy Pricing

Let’s say I offered you two options: an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris (flight, hotel, rental car, continental breakfast, etc) or an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome. Which would you take?

It’s a tough decision. They’ve both got a lot going for them and you’d be hard-pressed to make a quick choice.

But what if there were a third option? What if we had a trip to Paris all-expenses paid (first option), a trip to Rome all-expenses paid (second option), and also a trip to Rome all-expenses paid but with no free breakfast (third option)?

Psychological Case Study:

In a study by behavioral psychologist and economist Dan Ariely, the overwhelming majority chose the second option (trip to Rome with free breakfast).


It’s easier to compare two options for Rome than it is to compare Paris against Rome directly.

”The moment you add Rome without breakfast, Rome with breakfast becomes more popular, and people choose it. The fact that you have Rome without coffee makes Rome with coffee look superior, and not just to Rome without coffee - even superior to Paris.”

  • Dan Ariely (his TED Talk on irrational decision making is also worth a listen).

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

  • Add a decoy option within your subscription or lead-gen page similar (but inferior) to the offer you actually want your site traffic to convert on.
  • Consider a decoy pricing option with qualities similar (but inferior) to your most profitable plan.

#11. Information Overwhelm and Progressive Disclosure

Information overwhelm is the simple idea that people have a limit to the amount of information they can absorb at any given time.

Basically, if you throw too much content, information or stimulus at an individual, their mind will just start ignoring things. Eyes will glaze over, other open tabs will become more interesting, and your traffic will bounce.

Think about the last time you had to study for an exam. Remember the feeling you got when you opened your textbook, flipped to Page 184 and saw the unimaginably-long paragraphs staring back at you?

That’s information overwhelm, and avoiding it is one of the most crucial parts of creating a UX-optimized (and conversion-optimized) website.

The way we can combat information overwhelm is with Progressive Disclosure.

Progressive Disclosure is a presentational method in which information is given to the website visitor in small increments, with the option to learn more entirely in the visitor’s hands. Originally conceived by John M. Carroll and Mary Rosson at IBM (1983), where they “found that hiding advanced functionality early on led to an increased success of its use later on. The approach [was also] dubbed "training wheels."”

Progressive Disclosure allows your website and landing pages to appear simple, un-intimidating, and clean while also containing (behind the scenes) all the information your visitors need in order to convert.

conversion rate optimization

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

Progressive Disclosure is done in several ways online...

  • A simple “Learn more” link which sends people to a page with more detail.
  • An accordion or expanding control with further options or features.
  • A “plus” or “minus” button (or “show more” equivalent link) which shows or hides additional information (for instance, Twitter’s “View Summary” or Facebook’s “See all Comments.”
  • Triangles or chevrons indicating the direction in which content would expand, offering more detail.

#12. Loss/Divestiture Aversion

We value higher the things we own than we do the things we don’t. This is common sense. But how intense does this get, and how can it influence our decision-making?

This is loss aversion: the fact that possession of an object increases its subjective value.

conversion rate optimization

The graphs above are actually simpler than they look. On the X-axis you have loss and gain. If you gain money you shift to the positive side of the axis. Lose money, shift to the negative side. On the Y-axis is value (or happiness).

The graph on the left shows the common-sense interpretation of the relative increase (or decrease) of happiness based on the relative increase (or decrease) of value.

For instance, if you gain $100, you move up 10 points on the happiness axis. If you lose $100, you should move down 10 points on the happiness axis. Right?

Nope. Turns out people are seriously more impacted (happiness-wise) by the loss of $100 than they are by the gain of $100 (and that’s the graph on the right).

Psychological Case Study:

Let me give an example of loss aversion from a mid-1980s study (which first proved it):

Two groups of volunteers are asked to come into a lab. Each group sits in a separate room. People from the first group are endowed with a mug (and told it’s now theirs). The second group are simply shown the mug (experimenter stands in front of them with it in his hands). The participants from the second group are asked to inspect the mug but don’t get close or touch it.

Both groups of participants are asked to report the value at which they would buy or sell the mug.

The first group (who have been given the mug to have) report their selling price: i.e. “I would ask $5 to sell this mug.”

The second group report their buying price: i.e. “I would pay $5 for this mug.”

Result: The average price the sellers were asking for their mugs was $5.78, while the average price buyers were willing to pay was $2.21.

This study proves just how quickly people become custodial of possessions, as well as how quickly we ascribe sentimental value: “because this thing is mine, it’s worth more than if it weren’t.”

And by the way, this study has been repeated many times over the years, even to the point where the object to be bought and sold actually had the price tag still on it, and the results were the same.

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

Loss aversion works fantastically within the free trial and freemium space when you’re looking to upgrade leads to a free plan. Rather than framing your emails in terms of “you only have 10 days left in your free trial” consider framing them in terms of loss. For instance:

  • "10 days until you lose access to Wishpond’s lead-generating platform!"
  • "10 days before we have to block your login details!"
  • "10 days before the 50% discount goes away!"

Even if your leads weren’t previously aware of the thing they have, making them aware of the loss of it.

#13. Novelty

Human beings are hard-wired to try new things. It was crucial for our ability to stay alive in the more “eat-my-boot” periods of our evolution. In fact, numerous medical studies have shown that exposure to something new and unfamiliar stimulates a region in our brain (the substantia nigra, if you’re curious) which is responsible for regulating motivation and reward-processing.

In short, when you expose your prospective customers to a new idea, technology, or approach, they’re wired to become intrigued.

And yet, don’t go overboard. Human beings are just as hard-wired to fear change as they are to embrace newness (if you’re frustrated by the paradoxical nature of mankind’s psychology, you’ll have to get over it).

Here’s what I recommend: tread carefully.

Finding the balance between appealing novelty and reassuring sameness is a delicate dance, but getting it right is a huge part of optimizing your marketing campaigns' conversion rates and client retention.

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

  • When you’re updating your products, don’t be afraid to advertise your changes. Use the words “new,” “never-before-seen,” “first,” “straight out of the box,” etc. Also use novelty in your email subject lines and advertising campaigns.
  • When you’re fundamentally changing your platform, service, or the look of something, approach the move with serious caution. Even if you’re improving the usability of whatever it is, don’t trust your customers to recognize the positives for the first month or so.

#14. Curiosity

You may have heard of the Information Gap, as it’s one of the more well-known behavioral theories.

Psychological Case Study:

It goes like this...

In 2009, social psychologists from Carnegie Mellon put subjects into an MRI as they read trivia questions. When a subject’s curiosity was piqued by a question, the researchers noticed activity in the caudate region of their brain - an area previously shown to be triggered when someone was anticipating a reward.

The research led to a behavioral study, which showed “that subjects spent more scarce resources (either limited tokens or waiting time) to find out answers when they were more curious.”

In short, when we identify a “gap” between what we know and what we don’t, we take action to fill that gap (and pleasure receptors are triggered when doing so).

Of course this is valuable to online marketers interested in grabbing the attention of their prospective customers, but I can’t help but think it goes a bit beyond that:

If you look at the full study (rather than just stopping at “Interesting... People don’t like not knowing things”) you’ll notice it also says that "the more you pique the interest or curiosity of your prospective customers, the more they’re willing to “spend” to fill their informational gap.”

So there’s two parts to this:

Firstly, for grabbing attention: Piquing the interest of your traffic with a question, outlandish/controversial statement or “life-changing” tip triggers the anticipation of pleasure.

Secondly, for lead generation: If you can create an offer which makes possible leads more curious than your competitors’ offers, you’ll not only get more information out of your leads (more “tokens” in the study), but also increase the chance of them attending and waiting around to have their informational gap filled.

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

  • For email marketing and advertising: Implement language which inspires curiosity to catch the eye and intrigue your prospective leads or email recipients.
  • For lead generation: Run a webinar and include a secret tip from an influencer that people have never heard before (or something similar). Promote this as your webinar’s selling point.

#15. Labelling

How we’ve labelled ourselves (or how we’re labelled by others) seriously impacts our behavior. And again, this is one of those things that we act upon every single day of our lives without ever knowing we’re doing it.

Psychological Case Study:

A joint study from Harvard and Stanford found that…

“Subtle linguistic cues have the power to increase voting and related behavior. The phrasing of survey items was varied to frame voting either as the enactment of a personal identity (e.g., “being a voter”) or as simply a behavior (e.g., “voting”). As predicted, the personal-identity phrasing significantly increased interest in registering to vote and, in two statewide elections in the United States, voter turnout as assessed by official state records. These results provide evidence that people are continually managing their self-concepts, seeking to assume or affirm valued personal identities.”

“The effect we observed depends on the fact that voting is something most people feel that they should do. The noun wording, we contend, simply ascribed symbolic significance to this behavior, suggesting it had implications for the kind of person one is. Therefore, we do not believe that a manipulation of this sort would induce people to engage in behavior in which they feel they should not engage. In fact, we would expect the opposite effect for behavior people see as undesirable (e.g., “cheating” vs. “being a cheater”; “quitting” vs. “being a quitter”).”

This study is corroborated by a couple others. What researchers refer to as “noun wording” leads people to see actions as more representative of a person’s innate nature. In one previous study, adults rated their own reading habits stronger and more immutable when “induced to describe them with nouns (e.g., “I am a Shakespeare-reader”) than with the related verbs (e.g., “I read Shakespeare a lot”).”

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

  • Inform your customers of their segment upon their first interaction with your business (like, Pro-Planners, White-Labellers, etc). Include these segment labels within email subject-lines, even to the point of dynamically changing your dashboard’s copy. It’s possible that ascribing an identity to your customers based on their plan could have a positive effect on their retention (they are more likely to want to remain “white-labellers.”)
  • Rephrase lead generation pages and customer questionnaires. Rather than asking the question “Are you interested in conversion rate optimization?” ask “Are you a conversion-rate optimizer?” Rather than asking “Are you interested in fashion?” ask “Are you a fashion-conscious person?” These are labels with positive connotation, and (as such) are desirable labels.

#16. Selective Disregard (Banner Blindness)

Rather than this factor being a way for you to trick your visitor’s brains to act in a way you want (such as a conversion), selective disregard is simply something you need to be aware of when optimizing your website and funnel's conversion rates.

I mentioned Information overwhelm before, and selective disregard is related. Both concern the fact that the human brain is very good at ignoring stimulus.

A great example of this is in eyewitnesses to crime, which I’m sure you know are incredibly unreliable.

conversion rate optimization

The fact of the matter is, it’s completely impossible for the mind (and eye) to process every visual stimulus in our world.

So we filter (incredibly effectively). Have you ever been on a busy street, walking through a crowd, and only notice you’ve been looking at your best friend or sibling when you’re two feet away from them?

Have you ever seen the name of an actor you’ve never heard of before and then started seeing that name everywhere?

The phenomenon of not seeing things which are deemed unnecessary by our subconscious is known as Selective Disregard - the basis for that most-hated foe of advertisers everywhere, banner blindness.

Banner blindness is, in short, the incredibly common (and frustrating) fact that internet users become so accustomed to seeing advertisements everywhere online that they simply stop seeing them. The visual stimulus goes in the eye and dissipates somewhere in the optic nerve, never to get a bounce-back from the brain.

This is dangerous for conversion rate optimizers, web designers and online advertisers, because we rely so heavily on the changes we make or the designs we implement being noticed by site visitors or our target market. Selective Disregard means that any subtle change to your dashboard won’t be noticed by those customers who see it most. It means that an advertisement that doesn’t clearly catch the eye will not only not be acted on, but genuinely not even seen amidst the other stimulus of a page.

How you can use this psychological factor for conversion rate optimization:

Rather than using this psychological factor to improve conversion rates, you simply need to be aware of it…

  • Every design change you make to a long-existing page, funnel or dashboard needs to be clear and obvious.
  • Take courageous steps to make your advertisements stand out from your competitors (color, images and message, primarily).
  • Don’t immediately discount failed (or inconclusive) A/B tests. First ask yourself “Was this test visible enough to be noticed by our visitors, or can we run it again in a more obvious way?”

Further Reading on Tricking the Brain:

Next Chapter

To head back to the Table of Contents, click here.

Written by James Scherer

James Scherer is the content editor at Wishpond. When he's not writing or designing for Wishpond he's risking his life biking around the city. Reach out to him on Twitter @JDScherer.