Psychologists describe cognitive dissonance as the mental stress that occurs when someone is confronted by information that conflicts with their existing beliefs or values. People want internal consistency. When something challenges our assumptions, we do whatever we can to regain the consistency between what we believe and our reality. A classic example of cognitive dissonance is “The Fox and the Grapes”, a fable by Aesop. The fox sees some grapes hanging from a high branch, and he wants to eat them. When he is confronted by the reality that he can’t reach the grapes, he quells his cognitive dissonance by telling himself that the grapes are probably sour anyway.
Cognitive dissonance finds its way into small business marketing as well as fables by ancient wise men. Customers are beset by this phenomenon often. When customers shop for a particular product or service, they often have to choose from two or more equally attractive options, represented by different brands or companies. Each brand offers something slightly different from the others, making them all attractive to the customer for different reasons. This choice can be excruciating, especially when the customer has little experience in the field of products she is looking for. All of her expectations are based on second-hand information of one kind or another, either from reviews or her friends’ recommendations, advertisements, and marketing. She has no personal experience with the product at all, causing uncertainty and cognitive dissonance. The information presented her doesn’t match her preconceived notions about each brand, small business, or the product itself.
Marketers have to deal with cognitive dissonance in their customers constantly. There are many ways they overcome this psychological phenomenon and sell products. Marketing experts make their brand more attractive than their seemingly comparable competitors by sweetening the deal with money-back guarantees, testimonials, and after-sale service. All of these features calm the cognitive dissonance in the customer’s mind and urge her to choose that particular product.
When someone on the street asks a pedestrian if they have a moment to save the planet, they get many signatures on their clipboard. That’s because they used cognitive dissonance to get people to sign their petitions. An average person walking down the street probably does have a few moments to save the planet, but they also don’t want to talk to a stranger. However, many of us would rather engage with a clipboard holding signature hunter than dismiss the planet’s ecological problems. By ignoring the person with the clipboard, the passerby is showing they don’t care about the planet, when in fact they do care. The easiest way to ease their cognitive dissonance is to sign the petition.
People will always try to reduce cognitive dissonance. Smart marketing gurus know how to make their product or service the solution to cognitive dissonance by easing their customers’ concerns or by providing them with an easy out. If marketing is all psychology, understanding cognitive dissonance and other psychological phenomena makes all the difference.