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Cognitive Biases and Story Marketing

By Kelly Sarabyn

Psychologists have conducted thousands of studies documenting the many ways humans are biased and irrational decision-makers. Part of the reason storytelling is such an effective marketing tool is because people aren’t rational automatons who objectively assess the costs and benefits of a product when deciding whether to buy it. Instead, they are moved by the emotion and connection created by the narratives around what they are buying.

When crafting a brand’s story, it is important to be aware of specific ways people are irrational so that you aren’t unintentionally framing your story in a way that discourages potential clients. Here’s a list of common biases and how they might apply to creating your marketing story.

Framing Effect

What is it? The framing effect means how an option is presented can drastically change the response. The classic study of the framing effect asked people to pick a program to help a foreign country suffering from a disease outbreak. Group one was told to choose between Program A, where 200 people will be saved, or Program B, where there is a 1/3rd probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3rd probability that 0 people will be saved. Group two was told to choose between Program C, where 400 people will die, or Program D, where there is a 1/3rd probability that 0 people will die, and a 2/3rd probability that 600 people will die. Even though the options presented to the two groups were mathematically equivalent, most people in group one—where the choice was framed in terms of saved lives—chose program A, the risk adverse option. Most people in group two—where the choice was framed in terms of deaths—chose program D, the riskier option.

In other words, even though the facts were the same, framing the story to focus on what could be saved versus what could be lost produced dramatically different outcomes.

How Might It Apply to Story Marketing? If you’re asking clients to take a risk, whether with their behavior or money, you might consider crafting a story in terms of what they stand to lose, instead of what they stand to gain. For example, if a health insurance company wants to persuade healthy, young people to buy insurance, they might want to run ads, like this one, that emphasize the possibility of a catastrophic bike accident. Ads, like this, that highlight health insurance’s value in keeping you healthy, might not be as effective.

Anchoring Effect

What is it? The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to frame subsequent assessments around an initial piece of information. For example, if you see a cheese is marked eight dollars and then discover it is 25% off, then you will think it is a better value than if you initially find it marked for six dollars.

How Might It Apply to Story Marketing? The first piece of information a client sees will stick in their mind, so it’s important to make sure that a client’s first impression of your product is a key part of the story you want to tell.

Intergroup Bias

What is it? We tend to favor people and ideas who we perceive as part of our group. This extends even to matters that should be rational, like evaluating political policies. In one study, people defended (or criticized) a welfare policy depending on whether they were told it came from their political party or the opposing party.

How Might It Apply to Story Marketing? If you create a compelling story around your brand that clients can identify with, you can move your brand into the “in” group for your clients. As a result, they will start extending you the same positive benefits they extend other groups they consider themselves a part of.

Present Bias

What is it? People value what they can have in the present moment significantly more than what they might be able to have in the future. Most people will take fifty dollars today, for example, over a hundred dollars a year from now.

How Might It Apply to Story Marketing? The best way around the present bias is to craft a compelling story that draws the future to the present. The diet and fitness industry, for example, is an industry where the present bias is particularly salient. It is generally focused on long-term gains at the price of short-term discomforts. One way around this is by crafting compelling narratives about the lifestyle of working out rather than the reward of having a fit body. Curves gym, for example, produced an advertising campaign that depicted real women with normal bodies who were happy with how the thirty-minute workout had changed their lives — their lives in that moment, not after they had lost weight.

Even though a brand’s story can’t always be shaped to account for cognitive biases, it helps to be aware of what they are and how they might affect the perception of a brand and its story. In the best-case scenario, stories can create a strong connection between the client and the brand that supersedes the negative effects of cognitive biases.

Kelly Sarabyn is an Associate at Woden, and she’s not immune to cognitive biases. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free Storytelling Blueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.