How Cognitive Bias Can Affect Buying Behaviour

How Cognitive Bias Can Affect Buying Behaviour

As shoppers and consumers, we all suffer from systematic errors in thinking, known as cognitive biases, that affect purchasing decisions and brand judgment.

It is now firmly established that, as a species, humans have more than 100 hard-wired cognitive biases. But we’ve been unaware of them for at least the last 35 million years. So now that we do know about them, simply deciding to overcome them is simply not going to work. We need better ways to manage and avoid these potentially damaging mental pitfalls.

What is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is a limitation in rational thinking caused by the tendency for the human brain to take short cuts to save energy. Cognitive biases are coping mechanisms that allow the brain to process vast amounts of input. While the mechanism is very effective, its limitations cause errors in decision-making.

Cognitive biases are mental habits - rules of thumb that help us make sense of everything around us and reach purchasing decisions with relative speed and minimal mental effort. It’s a way of thinking that is very common and might even appear rational; but in fact gets in the way of reasonable decision making. 

Cognitive biases are System 1 thinking in action

As humans, we are blessed with an intuitive internal stranger that is System 1 thinking. The challenge this poses is profound. It is human nature to make mistakes, and just because we are now aware of this limitation, doesn’t mean we can prevent the mistakes from happening.

System 2 thinking: A bit part player in the System 1 extravaganza

What can we do? We need to accept us as we are. The good thing about being a human is that we also have a deliberative part of our brain: System 2.

For the first time in human evolution, behavioural science has discovered that our slow, deliberative System 2 mind has realised that there is a much faster, more powerful System 1 in existence. And with that realisation, we can transform the way we retail; we can shape package design and improve shopping experiences, both in-store and online. We are now for the first time in a position to create retail that allows shoppers to make better decisions. This is the first time in evolution this has happened.

But what we all have to decide is whether we want the decisions shoppers make to benefit them or to be for the good of the retailers and brands competing for share of spend. Frankly, embracing behavioural science and shopper psychology has the power to do both!

How can we play on cognitive biases in retail?

Humankind has achieved a lot, despite all of these cognitive biases. Now that we are aware of them, we can design our stores and websites to neutralise their effect. If we want to avoid buyer’s remorse, we have to reshape the retail environments around us rather than hope to change ourselves.

Brands, retailers, marketers and designers now need to call on the expertise of behavioural science if they are to best meet the newly discovered needs of shoppers and consumers. If you’d like to know more about how shoppers really think, and how you can cater to their cognitive biases, ask me.

Humans are limited, we’re not perfect and we are irrational in many ways. But for the first time, we now have the opportunity of building retail that helps shoppers and consumers to make better decisions. Be that based on financial, health or whatever, that’s my hope.

And as shoppers, by accepting our inner stranger, we will come to a better understanding of our own minds, as well as those of others, and as a result, become more effective at shopping.


I think it is important to be aware in general of where human beliefs come from. If we think we have reasons for what we believe, that is often a mistake. Our beliefs, our wishes and our hopes are not always anchored in reasons, they are anchored in something else that comes from within and is different. Daniel Kahnemann

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

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