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Persuasive Web Design, Part 14: Cognitive Dissonance

"Thank you sir, may I have another?"

Ben Franklin once asked a favor of a political opponent: He asked to borrow a rare and valuable book.

Franklin's opponent granted the favor. And afterward, he showed much more respect for Ben Franklin.


If you accept the theory of Cognitive Dissonance*, the answer is simple. The belief that "I don't like Ben Franklin" was incompatible — or "dissonant" — with the fact that "I've done him a favor". Unable to rationalize this dissonance, his opponent changed his belief and convinced himself he liked Franklin.

"Ask someone a favor. If they grant it, they'll like you more."

The "Ben Franklin Effect" is just one example of Cognitive Dissonance. Another example is that if something has cost us dearly (in terms of money or effort) we tend to convince ourselves that it must be wonderful.

This psychological truism has long been put to use (intentionally or not?) by social groups, religious leaders... and marketers:

  • "The hazing ritual I went through to join my fraternity was horrendous. It must be a great frat!"
  • "I'm donating 10% of my income to — and have endured all manner of inconvenience for — my religion. It must be the one true path!"
  • "My Harley was really expensive and needs constant repair. It must be a great bike!"

How can I use "Cognitive Dissonance" to make my website more persuasive?

For a hint, see my previous post on Fostering Commitment Via Written Public Statements. In that example, the two beliefs are "I am an honest person" and "I have endorsed this product". To ensure there is no dissonance, we become more committed to the belief that the product must be good. There are endless other applications.**

In that previous post, a thoughtful reader pointed out that the principle could be used toward unethical ends. And it certainly could. So, unlike my post on How to Steal a Camera, I will stop short of giving a step-by-step guide on how to take advantage of Cognitive Dissonance to make your website more persuasive.

I'll leave it to you to decide if and how you could apply it. Just bear in mind the crux of the principle: that charging a very high price — or asking your customers to jump through some hoops — may work to increase customer commitment.

* Cognitive Dissonance is the theory that we find it terribly uncomfortable to hold two contradictory beliefs. For example, "I am an smart person" and "I overpaid for this product." To reduce the discomfort, we either rationalize our behavior (e.g. "I deserve the occasional indulgence") or change our belief (e.g. "This is a fantastic product".)

** Including some very negative ones, as Cognitive Dissonance also applies in reverse. It explains (at least in part) how wartime atrocities can occur. To overcome the dissonance between "I am a good person"" and "I'm killing people" soldiers come to dehumanize and hate their opponents.

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Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Very relevant, actually. The part about cognitive dissonance, I mean. By the way, sure you can use it to make a website more persuasive. The way I see it, the key is not really what you hint at, though. It's more about showing visitors what they want to see, what resonates with their identity, and doing so in a very natural, seemless way.

Because cognitive dissonance is not just about getting people to alter their opinions so as to have a more internally coherent view of the world. People are *actively seeking* any info that reinforce their view of the world, their identity. They welcome in their minds any piece of info that seems to resonate with what they believe... first confirm people in their opinions, then carry on an tell them something new, and they will gladly agree with this new data.
# Posted By fchollet | 2/17/11 6:59 AM

Very well put!

Yes, it's about creating messaging that truly resonates with visitors, affirming their view of the world, being consistent with prior actions, etc.

I previously wrote a post on "Matching Existing Knowledge", which gives a couple examples of websites that do a good job.


Thanks for your contribution.

# Posted By Michael Straker | 2/17/11 10:08 AM