Of all the cognitive biases out there, belief bias may be the most powerful. People make all sorts of major decisions all the time based on nothing more than what they believe in. Sometimes these choices work out great. Other times they’re a huge mistake.
What is belief bias?
Like most things in life, belief bias is best described through film.
Ever seen the movie The Big Short?
In it, a distinguished financial investor wants to buy more stocks of a collapsing bank. He defends his point of view by saying:
“…in the entire history of Wall Street, no investment bank has ever failed unless caught in criminal activities. So, yes, I stand by my Bear Stearns optimism.”
Then he’s told in the past few minutes Bear Stearns’ stock has fallen more than 38%. Does he still want to invest?
Of course, he does.
That scene shows belief bias in action. Now here’s your definition:
Belief bias explains one’s tendency to reason based on his/her values, beliefs and knowledge, rather than to fully obey logic.1
Why does it happen?
Most of us hope that we have the smarts and willpower to make logical decisions without belief bias playing a role. Sorry to say, your reasoning has probably been compromised by beliefs more times than you think.
Psychologists studying belief bias have some ideas about when and why it compromises our thought processes. First of all, research shows that children and elderly are more prone to favour believability over logic compared to young adults.2
That actually makes a lot of sense. Children are in the main learning stage of life so they believe most of what they’re exposed to, no matter how illogical it might seem.
The elderly have even more of a reason to rely on their beliefs to make decisions. They have a lifetime of experiences that come with wisdom. That’s why the elderly tend to be much better at managing money than young people — they see the whole picture. But sometimes beliefs from wisdom backfire.
There are all sorts of modern issues that many elderly aren’t too concerned about (Think hackers, computer viruses, global viruses, fake news, etc.). These issues were never a problem the previous 7 decades of their lives, so why should they worry about them now?
Another factor that drives us to rely on belief bias is time-pressured reasoning.3 Logic? Who’s got time for that when you’re in a hurry?
Seriously though, if you don’t have time to think things through, relying on your preexisting beliefs is not too bad of an idea.
Like with most cognitive biases, slower reasoning is more likely to yield logical conclusions, while time-pressured reasoning often results in a belief-biased way of thinking.
Applying belief bias to business marketing
Young, old and in a hurry. That covers pretty much all categories of people on the planet. It’s safe to say we are all very prone to relying on belief bias throughout the day. So, why can’t businesses use this for better marketing?
Know thy customer
If you can get your brand message in line with your audience’s existing beliefs, they will favour it. Building a brand that shares the core beliefs and values of your customers is the first step. Then you have to effectively communicate that to them through marketing. Even if other brands are pitching the same angle, you just have to be loud about it to capture people’s attention. Advertising helps.
Do this effectively and you can improve your relationship with your current customers and bring in new dedicated ones.
Sharing statistics about how great your products are is a start. But more importantly, show how your product affirms your customer’s feelings and can help them become who they want to be in life.
A great example of a brand that does this right is Glossier. Originally a beauty blog, they grew into a company with a 10,000-person waitlist. Here’s how they position themselves:
From their background in blogging, they knew their audience was full of women who believed they should feel good about themselves on a day-to-day basis, with or without makeup. Then they positioned their entire brand to message to fit that belief.
Time to get started
If you’re ready to start applying belief bias to your brand and marketing campaigns, start with your personas. Figure out who your target buyers are, tap into consumer psychology, then consider what their preexisting beliefs are. How can you position your brand to affirm these biases?
2 De Neys, W., & Van Gelder, E. (2009). Logic and belief across the lifespan: the rise and fall of belief inhibition during syllogistic reasoning. Developmental Science, 12(1), 123–130.
3 Evans, J. S. B. T., & Curtis-Holmes, J. (2005). Rapid responding increases belief bias: Evidence for the dual-process theory of reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 11(4), 382–389.