25 Proven Cognitive Biases in Copywriting: Marketing Secrets

Homo Economicus, the consistently rational and self-interested human, is a myth. Cognitive biases in copywriting take advantage of our built-in emotional responses.

How people act is often determined by situational factors – physical state, emotions, motivations, beliefs, group identity, and many others. When these factors consistently affect our decision-making, they become cognitive biases. 

Although the human brain remains a mystery in many aspects, some cognitive biases have become well-known. As a result, magicians, make-up artists and copywriters have learned how to use them strategically to achieve disproportionately good results. 

Stop giving away money to sales and copywriting classes and learn the top cognitive biases in copywriting. Learn when the human brain is prone to have a cognitive hiccup, and use this information to boost your persuasive efficiency.

In this article:

Table of Contents

What are cognitive biases, and why are they important?

The book definition of a cognitive bias is the ‘systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement,’ as defined in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. They are consistent errors in interpreting and processing information and can play a massive role in our decision-making. 

More importantly, cognitive biases operate subconsciously, and most people are utterly blind to them. Yet, politicians, Marketers, and Magicians use them all the time! 

A good magic trick focuses your attention in one place and consistently reinforces it there, giving you tunnel vision and distracting you from what is really going on. You can say the same about political campaigns, as well as well-written copywriting. 

The result is often a very one-sided perception that has nothing to do with objective reality and everything to do with how you should feel and act. For example, the decision to make a purchase is always an emotional one and hence is subject to multiple cognitive biases.

25 Examples of cognitive biases from Poor Charlie’s Almanack and how to use them in copywriting

Warren Buffett is widely regarded as the best investor in the world. He shares his success with his lifelong work partner Charlie Munger, who is one of the best when it comes to applied knowledge of human psychology. 

In their own words, throughout the years, they became disproportionately successful because ‘they tried not to be idiots’. 

Munger summed up his wisdom on the matter in the book ‘Poor Charlie’s Almanack,’ ultimately producing a list of 25 cognitive biases that can cloud rational decision-making. Many of these biases are well-researched in mainstream psychology as well. Thus, without further ado, Munger’s list.

#1 Reward and Punishment Superresponse Cognitive Bias

What is it?

The first thing you need to know about humans is that they pursue rewards and avoid punishments. The brain is built to repeat behaviour that consistently brings rewards and to avoid behaviour that fails to do so. Everyday rewards can be money, friendship, sex, and status increase. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Every copywriter and their pet chihuahua should understand that in order to get anyone to do anything, they need to give them a reason. This can be either a reward or the threat of continuous emotional pain from the lack of action. This is the first cornerstone of cognitive biases in copywriting. 

#2 Liking/Loving Cognitive Bias

What is it?

The liking/loving tendency, also known as the Halo effect and the association fallacy, is the effect of having a positive impression of an object or person in one area to cause you to have a positive image of other people or things as well. 

If you enjoy how a person looks, you are likely to think they also have other virtuous qualities. If a friend you like recommends a movie, you are more likely to perceive it positively before you watch it. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

The entire industry of influencer marketing is built around the association fallacy. If you like an influencer, you will likely respond positively to any products or services they recommend. 

As a copywriter, you can highlight the status of the product you promote by name-dropping celebrities already associated with it. For example, fashion, cosmetics, fitness, wellness, and tech are all industries that are ripe for such associations. 

It’s not about the dress, but the movie star that wore it at the last Oscars, the software that an industry leader is using, and the supplements a bodybuilder is using. Create a perception of value through association.

#3 Disliking/ Hating Cognitive Bias

What is it?

The disliking tendency is the opposite of the liking tendency. We dislike objects and people who are associated with things we don’t like. 

If the kid who bullies you has a favourite football team, you’ll dislike the team by association. In fact, much of sports is built around creating opposing group identities. The rival team wears red jerseys, and by association, you start to hate the colour red.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

The disliking tendency can be used in copywriting to associate the status quo with a well-known unpleasant experience. For example, suppose you are selling running shoes to athletes, and you know that being first is important to them. In that case, you can associate not purchasing with settling for the second-best gear and performing sub-optimally.

#4 Doubt-Avoidance Cognitive Bias

What is it?

Doubt is painful and stressful. So the brain will do whatever it can to avoid it for as long as possible, and when it has to face it, it will try to eliminate it as quickly as possible. 

We always want to be sure of what we want and what we do. Moreover, if we doubt ourselves for too long, we end up paralyzed and overwhelmed by problems. 

How to use it in copywriting?

Humans crave certainty and hate doubt. Explain how your product or service can eliminate doubt from your prospect’s life and give them a reward with confidence. 

If you are selling CBD supplements which have a known pain-relieving effect, highlight how your clients don’t need to worry about dealing with pain in a different place and how their decision to take supplements is helping them take back control over their life.

#5 Inconsistency-Avoidance Cognitive Bias

What is it?

Also known as confirmation bias, this tendency highlights the unwillingness of people to change their behaviour. The brain likes to move on autopilot to conserve energy. Change requires effort, and effort requires energy which is annoying to get. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Instead of explaining how your product will revolutionize the life of your prospects, try telling them how your product will empower them to live the comfortable life they are already used to. 

The first approach creates the possibility for doubts, and the second one reinforces the feeling of certainty and that no significant effort will be required of your prospects to make their life slightly better. 

We can use the CBD supplement example again. Instead of bombarding people with information and potential benefits, highlight the fact that the product will help them live their life the way they want. 

#6 Curiosity Cognitive Bias

What is it?

People are naturally curious, even more so than other mammals. We most likely developed it because it aided our survival, especially in finding new lands and food sources. 

Social media takes advantage of people’s curiosity by constantly feeding them new information but randomizing its quality. Thus, we are always anticipating the next good TikTok, YouTube short, or something that comes up on our Facebook feed. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

When creating content, you can always leave room for a surprise. Email newsletters, social media posts, and lead magnets are great for using curiosity to attract attention. Some copywriters title their email newsletters as ‘3 random things on my mind’. 

Think of the concept of mystery boxes. Or online quizzes which require you to answer a few questions and give you a label, which you find out only after you give your email. Which Hogwarts house would you belong to? What sports car would suit your personality?

#7 Kantian Fairness Tendency

What is it?

Also known as the ‘Golden Rule’, this tendency reflects people’s desire for fairness. As a result, humans are naturally conditioned to follow behaviours, which, if followed by all, would bring a good outcome for everyone. 

Examples of this are when people wait in a line, respect traffic rules, take care of shared spaces, avoid harming each other and more. Contrarily, when someone takes advantage of social norms, they instantly provoke the anger of others. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

People desire fairness. Non-profit organizations are masters of harnessing the emotions that stem from injustice and the desire to remedy it. Think of advertisements that foster support for humanitarian causes. They often appeal to the empathy of the receiver and their feeling of fairness. 

If your product or service has an element to it that aids the environment or the community, or the world in any meaningful way, you can use that as an extra selling point by appealing to doing what is right. This is one of the more modern cognitive biases in copywriting. 

#8 Envy/ Jealousy Cognitive Bias

What is it?

The Jealousy Tendency reflects people’s desire to want things that other people have. It is a mindset that evolves in conditions of scarcity and makes people afraid they will lose what they already have. When combined with a disliking tendency, it can lead to resentment and hate. 

Examples of jealousy include anger at unequal wealth distribution, systems which do not account for differences in productivity and reward everyone the same, and absolute increases in well-being that lead to inequality and others. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

As a copywriter, you can use jealousy in moderate amounts. If you introduce scarcity through limited editions or exclusive access, you inevitably create inequality between your customers and your prospects. 

Thus, you can highlight all the benefits that a select few people are going to get, which will result in a permanent increase in their well-being. Scarcity breeds jealousy. Jealousy breeds desire. 

Think of promoting a webinar that offers exclusive access to a limited number of people, promises results, and even guarantees that all members will achieve them or they will get their money back.

#9 Reciprocation Tendency

What is it?

The reciprocation tendency reflects people’s desire to reciprocate favours and disfavours. Human psychology likely evolved this way to deter bad behaviour and foster group cooperation. I help you, and you help me.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

People like to reciprocate as a part of their desire for fairness. You can use this tendency to push offers that require a small commitment from your clients, which you will then match with a promise of your own. 

For example: Bring us your old telephone and we will give you a flat 20% discount on a new purchase. In addition, for every purchase you make, we will plant a tree. 

Reciprocity can sharpen your messaging and inspire more people to take part. But, naturally, your commitment should be directly beneficial to the customer or to something they value. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work.

#10 Influence-from-mere-association Cognitive Bias

What is it?

Just as the liking and disliking tendencies make people like or dislike things based on their association with something else, the influence from association tendency makes them infer causation based on mere correlation. 

A gambler may believe they are on a hot streak, or an investor may think they had excellent investment foresight when both people got randomly lucky. 

Killing the messenger who brings bad news is another example of mixing up correlation and causation. Just because two things occur together does not mean one causes the other. But the human brain often fails to make such a distinction.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

People naturally attribute high value to things from mere association. Similarly to the liking tendency, you can make your products associated with attractive influencers or a specific type of people. For example, having a higher price will make people associate your service with better quality. 

Sports brands like Nike constantly take advantage of this bias. By aggressively promoting their shoes through athletes, they successfully cement the perception that Nike shoes make you an athlete. 

As a copywriter, if you target industry specialists with your products or service, they will become more valuable for the same industry just by association. 

#11 Pain-Avoiding Psychological Denial Cognitive Bias

What is it?

Humans tend to deny problems to avoid psychological pain. Unfortunately, although it is a survival mechanism in extreme circumstances, it often leads to poor decision-making. 

An example can be when someone refuses to admit they have a problem such as a dependency, a toxic relationship, or a personal fault. Instead, they refuse to accept it and blame someone else. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Related to the first bias we mentioned, people run away from pain, even if it is only perceived. One of the most basic techniques which copywriters use is to aggravate the emotional pain that a problem is causing someone. 

Simply explained, copywriters put salt in people’s wounds to give them a mental nudge. As mentioned in bias #4, people avoid doubt at all costs. Any change to their status quo, by definition, involves doubt. Thus, by increasing pain perception from their current problems, they help them overcome their doubt-avoidance tendency and start looking for a solution.

#12 Excessive Self-Regard Cognitive Bias

What is it?

Popularly known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this tendency is about people overestimating their abilities. For example, over 90% of drivers believe their driving skills are above average, which is impossible. 

The tendency is true for abilities, personal opinions, potential, and possessions. This spur in confidence has an evolutionary benefit but can also cloud momentary judgement. 

Populist politicians like to play the tune of how the people know best and how solutions are simple, but no one wants to take them, which is a massive false oversimplification of reality.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

People are naturally overconfident and want to believe things are clear. Let them. Simplify reality, teach them something new and make them feel like they are making progress. This builds their confidence more up to the point when it translates into action. 

People need to feel like they understand the bigger picture surrounding their problem before taking action. Simplifying it for them by applying principles like the 80/20 rule can prepare them for action faster. 

However, simplifying reality to the point where the depiction is no longer accurate is unethical and, in most countries – illegal. 

#13 Overoptimism Tendency

What is it?

People are optimists by nature and tend to believe things will work out for them or that they will ‘get lucky.’ 

This tendency perfectly explains the existence of the lottery. Everyone imagines themselves as a winner before the numbers are out. As a result, millions of people participate, but only a dozen win a considerable sum. 

People tend to overestimate small probabilities, whether negative or positive. For example, imagine pushing a button that gives you a 1% chance of winning a billion and a 1% chance of suddenly dying. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Uncertainty in your core offer will scare people away unless you are a casino or a mystery box business. However, you can use the over-optimism tendency to generate engagement outside your main offer. 

Create contests or giveaways for your followers where they get the chance to receive a prize if they make a small commitment. This also works for brick-and-mortar businesses that engage daily with their customers.

#14 Deprival-Superreaction Tendency

What is it?

Also known as the loss aversion or sunk costs fallacy, it represents the tendency of people to react more sharply to losses than to gains of the same scale.

Simply put, people are more miserable when they lose 10$ than happy when they find 10$. Building up from bias #1 that people chase rewards and flee punishments, the deprival super reaction tendency makes clear that people fear the stick more than they love the carrot. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Instead of focusing your messaging on how many benefits you will bring to your customer, focus on how much pain you will be saving them. 

Instead of arguing how you will help them earn an extra 100$ per month through your service, let them know that every month in which they are not using your service is costing them 100$. That perceived loss hits harder than the potential benefit. 

#15 Social-Proof Tendency

What is it?

Also known as social conformity, this tendency represents the desire of people to speak, think, and act as those around them. This psychological mechanism evolved to help social cohesion and cooperation. 

Think of how everyone seems to lose their minds on Black Friday and engage in a shopping spree of items they most likely would not have bought on any other day of the year. Or how teens value the social proof of their peers more than that of their parents. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

To create a ‘follow the herd’ effect, you need to make it look like other people are already using and enjoying your products or service. If you say your product is good, that’s fine. If someone else says it, it’s good. If many people say it, it’s great. 

Thus, always make sure to include testimonials of happy customers, be it on your website or as part of your social media or emails. Third-party testimonials are excellent for generating social proof and, by extension, cementing your authority and trustworthiness. As such, social-proof is one of the most trusted cognitive biases in copywriting. 

#16 Contrast-Miscreation Tendency

What is it?

Also known as the anchoring effect, this tendency represents the shift in perception of one object in contrast to a previous thing. People generally think in relative terms as opposed to absolute ones. 

Think of the real estate agents who show you three overpriced bad houses and, finally, a normal-priced okay place. The latter seems like a bargain compared to the first three. 

The boiling frog syndrome is also an interesting example. If you put a frog directly in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put it in cold water and warm it up very slowly, the frog won’t perceive the danger and will be boiled alive. 

People act in a similar way to the frog. They perceive significant changes sharply but will have a weak reaction to consecutive incremental changes that bring a result of a similar magnitude. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Skilled copywriters use contrasts and anchors all the time. For example, they compare the painful present to the problem-free future by comparing the costs of acting versus the unacceptable status quo. 

Moreover, a great time to use anchors is when you present your offers. For example, if you are selling three packages, you can purposefully make one of them worse off so the other two look better in comparison. This creates a similar effect to that of the rental agent who makes the average-priced house look like a bargain.

Contrast is among the most powerful cognitive biases in copywriting that skilled writers use to great effect. 

#17 Stress-Influence Tendency

What is it?

The stress influence tendency represents the fact that people make decisions faster when they are under stress. Stress usually amplifies other biases like doubt-avoidance, disliking, and reciprocation tendencies.

This psychological mechanism most likely evolved as a consequence of the fight or flight syndrome, which is an automatic physiological reaction to stressful events. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Although they’d hate to admit it, copywriters rely on creating at least some stress in their readers. For example, they try to instil a sense of urgency or scarcity. Or they try to aggravate the emotional pain people experience from a given problem to get them to act. Like salespeople, they may use all sorts of pressure tactics to infuse stress into the situation. 

Remember that stress isn’t necessarily bad and, in many cases, spurs people to grow and improve. The difference between the poison and the cure is in the dosage. Thus, copywriters need to have a sharp sense of balance and understand when the pressure to act is enough.

#18 Availability-Misweighing Tendency

What is it?

People tend to overvalue what is directly available to them. ‘A sparrow in hand is better than an eagle in the sky.’ Due to their limited capacity to remember, people quickly jump to the most available things. 

Like going to the same place to grab food, visiting the same website that was useful last time, or calling the same taxi service that worked last time. The brain likes to be lazy and avoid dealing with unnecessary changes. ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Generally, it would be best if you made your service as readily available as possible. However, you can add further nuance to your products or services based on availability. People will likely compare them and seek the path of least resistance, aka what is most immediately available. 

A call to action is a fantastic way to limit uncertainty about what to do next and increase availability. ‘Your solution is just a click away!’ As a copywriter, it is your job to make your solutions readily available at the right time and place. Availability is one of the easier cognitive biases in copywriting. 

#19 Use-it-or-lose-it Tendency

What is it?

This tendency reflects that all neural circuits in the brain have memory and decay over time if not used. Oppositely, they grow more robust the more a person uses them.

Whether you play chess, the piano, or learn a language, the more you do it, the better you get. But when you stop, your skills instantly begin to diminish.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Duolingo is a perfect example of using this tendency to a remarkable effect. The language learning app rewards the daily progress of each user. Every day when users complete an exercise is added to their streak. If they miss a day, they lose their progress. 

When users have built up a streak of several hundred days, the thought of losing their streak becomes so unbearable that they become indefinitely hooked to the app. As a result, over 1 million users have an over a year-long consecutive daily streak. 

If you can make the consistent progress of your users meaningful and conditional on their continued participation, you can hook people in for the long run. This is one of the most difficult, yet effective cognitive biases in copywriting to take advantage of. 

#20 Drug-Misinfluence Tendency

What is it?

Drugs and alcohol harm your cognition and make your decision-making suboptimal. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Drugs become a problem because you lose self-control and, consequently, your ability to control events. However, the desire to feel like you have a say in what happens to you is core to every human being. Thus, you can use this thought train to position your product as the solution to taking control of your life well beyond drugs and alcohol.

#21 Senescence-Misinfluence Tendency

What is it?

Older people find it harder to learn new skills. In addition, cognition capacity deteriorates over time. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Similar to the previous tendency, this isn’t a specific trigger you can pull but a motif you can use to spur people into action. For example, people naturally fear becoming old, losing their strengths, and seeing their best days behind them rather than in front of them. 

Thus, older people may feel a greater sense of urgency to solve their problems quickly and are willing to pay more for quicker solutions that offer guaranteed results. In short, they have no time to waste, and if you can explain how your service can save time for them, that would be great.

#22 Authority-Misinfluence Tendency

What is it?

This tendency reflects the natural desire of people to follow leaders. This psychological mechanism most likely evolved to increase social cohesion and spur imitation and learning from successful behaviour. 

However, this tendency can severely limit the ability of the individual to take rational decisions by themself. Multiple experiments have proven that when faced with perceived serious authority, most people default to conformism.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

For your message to have any impact whatsoever, you need to position yourself as an authority on the subject. If you are the go-to authority on a matter, most people don’t even think twice about what you say. They take your wisdom for granted and soak up every word. 

Getting to this ideal state is much easier said than done. One of the most reliable ways to create authority is to limit your scope of expertise. In simple words, you need to become a specialist in a niche. Instead of focusing on colossal umbrella topics, find the building blocks of each category and master them one by one. 

You must ensure your messaging consistently presents your product or service as the surest solution to a problem. Talk the talk, then walk the walk.

#23 Twaddle Tendency

What is it?

Again, a form of the Dunning-Krueger effect, twaddling means acting or speaking foolishly. When people grow out of their niche too quickly and try to tackle topics that are beyond their understanding, they tend to oversimplify to a point where they are no longer helpful. 

This mechanism is a direct consequence of the excessive self-regard tendency. People are overoptimistic about their ability and will fail to see reality as long as they can support their beliefs. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

People want to appear capable in areas where they have only limited experience. Thus, they have an affinity for using shortcuts, hacks, cheat codes, and anything which will promise them a disproportionately large reward. 

True mastery is often perceived to be so challenging to attain that most people would never even start improving. By telling them a white lie about how easily they can progress, you can at least get them started on their road to self-improvement.

Naturally, this should be done with remarkable tact and without telling any flat-out lies about the results, they will get. Just tell them they will get as much as they put in.

#24 Reason-Respective Tendency

What is it?

People naturally attach meaning to facts and independent sequences of events. As a result, mythology has given birth to many explanations about how the world works and what our behaviour should be like. 

When people are given a reason, they are more motivated to work, learn, and act in a specific way. 

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

Framing is one of your best friends as a copywriter. The meaning you attach to objective items creates an emotional hook for your customers. 

It would be best to tell people a story that gives them a reason to act. The example of selling the hole instead of the drill is well known. But you can take it a step further. 

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#25 Lollapalooza Tendency

What is it?

A lollapalooza is a term that represents multiple biases working together, amplifying each other, and leading to extreme decisions or consequences. Rational thought gives way to feelings and impressions, which can lead a person to move in a wholesomely wrong direction.

How to use this cognitive bias in copywriting?

As a copywriter, you might see your end goal as creating a lollapalooza effect for your customers and spurring them into a buying frenzy. Although that will make your business very happy in the short term, you need to ensure you are serving your customers if you want to keep them long-term. 

Cognitive biases in copywriting may help you hide flaws and highlight the benefits of your products or services in the short term, but the longer the time horizon, the more important becomes the value you offer.

Final Thoughts on Cognitive Biases in Copywriting

They give insight into how our brains work and help us understand human nature. Aligning your message around cognitive biases in copywriting is a powerful cheat code to help prospects overcome psychological barriers between them and making the purchase. Lastly, I hope you found this guide helpful!

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