The list of human cognitive biases is long. From the availability heuristic to the Zeigarnik effect, reading about them all is enough to make you despair that we'll ever be able to make logical decisions or plan rationally.

But here's the good news. Our brains might be strange machines but, if we're aware of our quirks, our many biases can be manipulated for good as well as ill. You may have read some of the more famous examples of this from the realm of public policy, such as making organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in, but there are also ways to turn our biases into action in the commercial realm as well.

Some of the best known of these are around pricing but our biases come into play when we're designing apps and websites too. Susan Weinschenk, author of 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, has made her name cataloging them. If you're interested in a deep dive into the subject, her blog is a must-read. A strange but fascinating recent post offers a good example of why.

More nouns = more clicks

If you want more people to click on a sign-up or subscribe button, Weinschenk suggests in the post, try simply changing the wording from a verb phrase (E.g. 'Vote now!') to a noun ('Be a voter!'). Any elementary school kid could tell you these two things mean exactly the same thing, so why would the second wording result in way more clicks?

The suggestion is based on work by Stanford psychologists Gregory Walton. "In a series of experiments, he tested how different labels affect behavior. We tend to think that preferences and attitudes are stable. People like opera or they don't. People like to go dancing or they don't. Walton thought these attitudes and preferences might not be so stable after all," she explains. Could different labels affect the strength of our preferences, Walton wanted to know.

His studies revealed that when people were told, for example, 'Beth is a baseball fan,' they judged Beth to like baseball a whole lot more than if they were told 'Beth watches a lot of baseball.' In a follow-up experiment, Walton and his colleagues even proved that this difference in perception can affect real-life behavior. When people were asked 'How important is it to you to be a voter?' they were much more likely to register to vote than if they were asked 'How important is it to you to vote?'

What on earth is going on here? Weinschenk explains: "everyone has a need to belong. Using a noun invokes group identity. You're a voter, or you're a member, or you're a donor. When you ask people to do something and phrase it as a noun rather than a verb, you're invoking that sense of belonging to a group and people are much more likely to comply with your request."

Putting this insight to use

So what's the takeaway here for business owners? Besides reminding us that people are endlessly complex, Weinschenk insists this insight is useful for anyone who has to decide what text to put on a button or link.

Her first suggestion: "When naming a button on a form or landing page, consider using a noun, not a verb: 'Be a member' or 'Be a donor' instead of 'Donate now.'" Similarly, she suggests that when describing your products, nouns beat verbs. That means you should opt for, 'When you're ready to be an expert, check out our training courses,' rather than just 'Check out our training courses.'

Is might sound odd, but hey, if it might get you more clicks, it's at least worth an A/B test, right?

Published on: May 11, 2016