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Over the past year, I’ve written dozens of posts on persuasive web design. Most were based on psychological research conducted long before the Internet existed.

Can you take decades-old research, and apply it to a medium that wasn’t even contemplated when the research was done?

I’d argue YES. In fact, I’d argue that many of the principles work better online than ever. Let me explain…

Most persuasion tactics take advantage of our “adaptive shortcuts”. Rather than doing a real evaluation, we make assumptions. For example:

Note that in all cases, we’re making assumptions based on incomplete information. Sometimes, these adaptive shortcuts can lead us into making silly decisions. But usually, our assumptions are correct:

  • The most popular choice is usually a safe one.
  • Expensive items typically are better than cheap ones.
  • If a real expert gives us advice, we’re usually wise to take it.

Think about how many decisions you have to make in a given day. If you actually stopped and performed a considered analysis before making every decision, you’d become paralyzed.

As Robert Cialdini points out in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, we need our adaptive shortcuts. And the more information we have to process, the more we need them.

Now, in the age of the Internet and its virtually limitless content, we need our adaptive shortcuts more than ever.

This opens a wonderful opportunity for online marketers. When you understand your customers’ adaptive shortcuts, you can put them to positive use. For example, you can leverage Social Proof by including testimonials and/or product ratings and reviews.

There’s nothing unethical about this: You’re simply helping your customers make good decisions.

There is, of course, a dark side. Shortcuts can be manipulated with counterfeit data and other forms of deception. So just when we need our adaptive shortcuts more than ever, we’re more likely than ever to be tricked by unscrupulous vendors.

I said it in my post on The Ethics of Online Persuasion: If you rely on deception, you have crossed the line.