The Fox goes shopping: cognitive dissonance in e-commerce

One of the most widely used metrics in e-commerce is conversion: simply a measure of the proportion of people who go from x to Sale, where x might be simply visiting the site, or perhaps adding something to the basket.

Of course, increasing conversion is generally a Good Thing because it makes big red lines point up and to the right. To achieve this wonderful state of affairs, e-commerce designers tend to focus on incremental improvements, hoping to push 17.0% to 17.3%, for instance. There are some straightforward means of doing this: tweaking help copy, clarifying calls to action, shiny Buy Now buttons, etc. And it works, but it’s far from sophisticated, and I think we’re missing a bigger trick here. For the last few days I’ve been playing around with the idea of approaching it from the other angle, and exploring the role of cognitive dissonance in the purchase process.

Cognitive dissonance is a tension arising when we have to choose between contradictory beliefs and actions. A classic example is the fable of The Fox And The Grapes. In it, we see our protagonist conflicted by a dissonant state which he then rationalises, much to his satisfaction.

Initial dissonant state:

  • Fox wants grapes
  • Fox can’t reach them

Resolved consonant state:

  • Fox did want those grapes
  • Fox couldn’t reach them
  • It’s ok, they were sour anyway.

Although written 2,500 years ago, this fable perfectly outlines our typical response to cognitive dissonance: we seek to resolve its tension immediately, in one of two ways. The easy way is to change the belief, usually by introducing a new one that modifies it. The hard way (much less frequently practised) is to change the behaviour that’s causing us the conflict. In our example, the fox took the easy way out, reducing his mental anguish by introducing a new belief: the grapes were sour.

The Fox goes shopping

The same process happens regularly in commerce (for example, I’d contend that both buyer’s remorse and store cards both have their roots in cognitive dissonance). Let’s say a potential buyer is about to spend £50 on a Super Widget. It’s highly likely they’ll experience some dissonance:

  • “I want a new Super Widget”
  • “£50 is a lot of money, I could buy Jake a new cricket bat with that”

Being human, our shopper will find this dissonance uncomfortable and want to resolve it as soon as possible. So typically a third thought is thrown into the balance, which will modify one of the existing thoughts. This will cause consonance and will result either in the purchase being approved or rejected. A negative consonant state could be:

  • “I want a new Super Widget… but I don’t know if this one’s the right size”
  • “£50 is a lot of money, I could buy Jake a new cricket bat with that”

Net result: no sale. A positive consonant state could be:

  • “I want a new Super Widget”
  • “£100 is a lot of money, I could buy Jake a new cricket bat with that… but I’ve spoiled Jake rotten this year, his old bat will last until next summer”

In which case, the Super Widget is bought.

A lot of the time, we can’t do much to bring about a positive modifying statement. It’s often intrinsically generated, based on one’s life circumstances (“I’ve earned it!” / “It’s OK, I’ve been to the gym a lot recently” etc). But we can do a lot about negative statements, because a lot of the time we simply hand them to our users on a silver plate. People with biases look for means to confirm them. And by forcing them to surrender their details before the appropriate juncture, giving them tiny photos, burying our phone numbers, we make it all too easy. In short, the more opportunities we give them to introduce negative modifying statements, the less likely they’ll buy from us.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have thought of this, but looking at things from the other side can reveal facets previously hidden in shadow. So here starts an experiment: rather than focusing on increasing sales (in effect, pushing people into purchasing), I propose we’re far better off removing the barriers that prevent them. It seems to me a more humanistic, less sales-driven approach, and one I think is better for us all in the long run.

Cennydd Bowles