Persuasive Web Design, Part 14: Cognitive Dissonance | Cardinal Path Blog
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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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