Hey sucker! Five cognitive biases you'll see being abused everywhere in January

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Believe it or not, marketers are a clever bunch. They are possibly the best at putting behavioural economics research to use, and never more so is this on my mind than over Christmas and throughout January. The internet, TV, and stores are awash with marketing messages designed to take advantage of my natural biases. Here are five plays, taking advantage of our cognitive biases, that you'll see everywhere in January. Beware!

In this post I reference the Cognitive Lode site extensively. It's a beautiful collection of some common and useful cognitive biases. There are more references and tools listed at the end.

The fresh start effect

The fresh start effect is straightforward enough. Research shows that we are more likely to motivate ourselves into good habits at the start of a new time period. We view our past and present selves as distinct, and so we find an appeal based on a fresh start compelling.

Expect to hear lots of "this new year", "in 2017", "in January", and "turn over a new leaf" in marketing messages.

In the example below, Holland and Barrett play on your desire for a fresh start with this tantilising offer and marketing copy.

The optimism bias

The optimism bias, often used hand in hand with the fresh start effect, is our natural tendency to big-up the good and downplay the bad when we look towards the future.

Knowing this, it makes sense to make negatives easy to digest.. unless you're a gym that uses a subscription model. Paid-up members with low attendance make gyms profitable. Your local gyms will use this bias to maximum effect this month. They want you to think about the buff future you, not the future you that is skipping the gym in favour of a comforting winter meal.

Expect to see lots of references to your future self, and how you will feel.

Bonus bias: If the gym is particularly keen on making your fitness goals a success, the temptation coupling bias may be of interest to them.

Take a look at how Virgin Active use this bias to encourage you to imagine how your future self will feel after going to the gym.

The centre-stage effect

We're an odd bunch. It turns out that we are more likely to choose something if it's presented in the middle of a group of options, and we call that the centre stage effect. This is used everywhere all year round. Just take a look at the pricing page of almost any Software as a Service (SaaS) or utility provider.

In January, keep your eyes peeled for this being bundled with the previous biases. Choosing a gym package or looking at a package holiday? The choice they want you to make is probably the one in the middle.

Pure Gym (yes, another fitness example) knows which option they want you to take.

The price-value bias

All the features! None of the cost! That's the price-value bias in a nutshell. We perceive more features to be better, even if something with fewer features will suit our actual needs.

Look out for "same price, more features" and "lower price, same features" comparisons on sale banners and promotional materials.

It's no coincidence that Best Buy placed these two laptop models side by side. This is a classic "same price, more features" play.

The completeness effect

The completeness effect is where we place higher value on things that are seen as 'whole'. If something is seen to be incomplete, we're more likely to want to complete it.

That's why at this time of year we see so many magazines where you build a model, piece by piece, over several issues. De Agostini have this bias nailed.


When building or iterating on products it helps to be aware of and consider cognitive biases, to make sure that the product is fit for purpose and not subject to false assumptions. Here are some amazing resources that will help you learn more about cognitive biases, and how you can avoid or use them.

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