Predictably Irrational: 6 Ways Negativity Bias Can Boost Your Online Sales

Amanda Mulquiney-Birbeck
Amanda Mulquiney-BirbeckDigital Marketing Manager
24 Feb 2020


Why is it that we have a greater propensity to remember things that go wrong, than go right? In this article, we explore the psychology behind negativity bias and how it can be used to boost your online sales.

The Phenomenon of Loss Aversion

Have you ever had a fantastic road-trip, but the car broke down mid-way? Or had a delicious meal and found a hair in it half-way through?

Do you remember the meal or the hair? Chances are you remember latter. Your experience has been tainted and this, in a nutshell, is negativity bias. It is a completely common, and there are dozens of other cognitive biases influencing every decision you and your customers make, but this mindset can cause real barriers to your online growth.

The phenomenon of less aversion is well known in cognitive psychology that highlights how people dread losses more than they savour or anticipate gains.

For example, it’s better not to lose £5 than to find £5.

Likewise, criticism stings more than praise elevates.

Why is it important?

The truth of the matter is that bad stuff rarely happens, we’re so used to everything going smoothly that whenever anything negative happens, it’s sticks in our minds. “Negative experiences have a stronger emotional impact on humans than positive experiences do. Thus, in designing the user experience, we need extra emphasis on avoiding those lows.” – NN Group

A single flaw on your site’s Usability can weigh more in the user’s minds, than the positive. If you can create a smooth and frictionless customer experience, the truth is, visitors may fail to count this as a UX success or event notice it at all. The same happens on holidays or in restaurants – how often will you comment if your meal or experience was fair to middling, or even good? Chances are you’re more likely to make a comment or write a review on TripAdvisor if you have a poor experience that doesn’t meet your expectations.

User experiences and annoyances matter. Here are 6 ways you can use the negativity bias to boost your online experience and conversion rates:


What to do

1. Follow design standards

Avoid novel interactions and design trends that are wildly different from best practice. An unusual design feature or novel navigation requires extra effort from the user.

People expect to find key functionality such as the navigation, company logo (home), search and basket to be familiar and where they see it on hundreds of times on other sites - that they use every day. By all means, you want to create an Ecommerce experience that ‘wows’ the end user. However, deviating too widely from best practice web standards can negatively impact on your overall user experience. For example, research from the Norman Nielsen Group claim that moving the company logo from left to centre makes it 6 times more difficult for visitors to get back to the homepage.    

2. Add a Decoy Option

There are other biases that can persuade and make a purchase decision easier, such as The Decoy Effect. This is where a buyer will be swayed to purchase option A or B because C (the decoy) makes an option more attractive than if it were just A and B. Take this example from Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational. It was a true case used by The Economist magazine where the subscription screen had the 3 options below:

  1. subscription - US $59.00. One-year subscription to Includes online access to all articles from The Economist since 1997
  2. Print subscription - US $125.00. One-year subscription to the print edition of The Economist
  3. Print & web subscription - US $125.00. One-year subscription to the print edition of The Economist and online access to all articles from The Economist since 1997

When presented like the above, 16% of the students in the experiment conducted by Ariely chose the first option, 0% chose the middle option, and 84% chose the third option.

Even though nobody picked the second option, when he removed that option the result was the inverse; 68% of the students picked the online only option, and 32% chose the print and web option.

Why not identify the product you want to target and add a decoy option to your online product bundles. Tactics such as these can make your products more appealing – you’ll see a hike in sales and an increased order value without needing to do anything to the products you’re selling more of.

3. Immediate Gratification

Generally, people prefer Immediate gratification over longer-term gains –research shows that more people would prefer £1 today, rather than £3 in a week’s time. In the Ecommerce world, you should also ensure there is the option for near-instant gratification so when it comes to speedy delivery. Make sure it’s an option (even if it costs more).  

4. Use reviews

According to Internet Retailing, many retailers are losing out on online sales due to a lack of trust and reliability. It’s a well-known that Customer reviews are the easiest way to build up trust and credibility. In fact, 61% of customers check reviews online before making a purchase, some surveys are as high as 73%.

What’s more, negativity bias can actually make consumers regard a company more highly when they see positive reviews. In much the same way hype can build due to our “follow the herd” mentality. This type of social influence is worth considering when promoting reviews on product pages.

5. Alleviate Users’ Concerns with Clear Messaging

It’s important to anticipate a user’s concerns or objections and address them quickly before they become a barrier to sale.

The devil is always in the detail or so they say. Micro pop-up’s, mini call-to-actions or prompts can be incredibly powerful when they’re used at the right time. They can cause users to take certain actions, creating a smooth user flow – or even reframe a negative impression into a positive one.

Despite your best efforts to create an enjoyable user experience, websites sometimes need error messages to help people resolve unavoidable issues. Take for example, eHarmony’s 404 error page. Here they take the opportunity to add personality and a strong tone of voice, reinforcing its promise to users looking for love. The calls-to-action also lessen the chances of users abandoning the site and going to a competitor, giving them an opportunity to either sign-up or log-in.

eHarmony 404.jpeg

Another brand that uses micro-copy to educate users on its stance as a sustainable brand are Reformation.  According to Marketing Week, “77% of millennials prefer to buy from environmentally-conscious brands” and we predict that consumers, in general, will be more inclined to ‘think green’ when it comes to the brands they shop with. For more on this top read: Sustainability: After the Buy Button.

The microcopy on sets expectations early on with clear messaging that states that shipping will take 3-4 weeks. In today’s ‘I want it now’ world, 4 weeks might seem like a long time. However, by easing concerns early on and emphasising the positive aspects of the product (high quality fabrics, handmade-to-order). Without this messaging, customers would have been left wondering why their order hasn’t arrived. This avoids any negativity arounds the brand, as customers are educated early on.




6. Usability test – often

The core foundation of usability is recognising that you are not your end-user. It is impossible to anticipate every user reaction or behaviour. Conducting user research, usability tests and multivariate testing helps you reduce design risks by making decisions grounded in evidence, not personal bias. Usability Testing allows you to validate any new or innovative ideas with real users.



About Maginus

For retailers – big and small – for whom success depends on growing online, we provide what it takes to sell better online. We do this by delivering class-leading Ecommerce websites that drive online growth and sales fulfilment solutions that facilitate next day delivery and customer service excellence.

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