The ABCs of Cognitive Bias: A is for Anchoring Bias

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns in thinking that occur when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. These influences can affect a person’s decisions and judgments. 

This series will dive into the ABCs of cognitive bias and how they can be applied to UX design. No better place to start than “A” – anchoring bias

How does anchoring bias affect decision-making? 

I used to work at a boutique tea shop. When teas approached their expiration date, we moved them into the 50% off section to move the product faster. For some reason, those teas would rarely get looked at despite the deep discount. One day, I decided to change the sign. 

Instead of “50% off”,  it read “Buy one tea, get another tea of equal or lesser value FREE!” Seeing that they’d get a free tea, customers began rummaging the bin more and leaving with a couple of extra boxes of tea. This is an example of anchoring bias. 

50% OFF!Buy one tea, get another tea of equal or lesser value FREE!
Original tea price: $16.00
50% off tea price: $8.00 (for 1 box of tea)
Original tea price: $16.00
BOGO tea price: $16.00 (for 2 boxes of tea, which is equal to $8.00 for 1 box of tea)

Anchoring (or focalism) bias causes us to focus on some initial or a singular piece of information (the “anchor”) to inform the decision-making process. This cognitive bias is one of the most commonly used by marketers and developers because of how effective it is. 

Walgreens’ weekly ad will typically include multiple-unit pricing (especially on snacks) such as Cheetos “Get 2 for $7”, otherwise, the Cheetos are $3.99 each. As a poor college student, this strategy worked every single time for me because I’m “saving” a dollar and I get 2 bags of Cheetos!

How can anchoring bias be used effectively in UX?

While it seems like anchoring is a negative ploy to bait users into making a certain decision, it can be used in a positive light to set your target audience up for success. The following are a couple of ideas that designers can use to effectively apply anchoring bias. 

1. Use anchoring to set expectations—and set your product apart

It’s one effective to contrast a product’s price with a higher price point, but that’s just one tactic. Let’s see how Amazon leverages anchoring to guide users to a more informed buying decision. 

  1. Star-rating, reviews, and questions: users get a snapshot to ensure the product is legit because other people have left reviews.
  2. “Amazon’s Choice” ribbon: certain products which fit the algorithm based on customer reviews, price, and whether the product is in stock will get this ribbon to ensure quality. These Cheetos are sold from the Cheetos store so they are highly recommended. 
  3. “Subscribe & Save” preselected: for certain items, you can save a percentage of the listed price if you subscribe to scheduled shipping of the product. So, if you really like Cheetos and eat them all the time, you can save 5-15% on them. 

2. Keep your customers intrigued 

Anchoring can be applied to website headlines, banners, and sliders as the first thing a user sees when they land. This is a prime opportunity to convey a brand’s concept, make any exciting announcements, and grab the user’s attention right away. 

Cheetos recently launched a Mac n’cheese product based on their beloved Cheetos. Customers can see in the slider images of the cheese and the new product. Your eyes will read “Your favorite snack is now a cheesy mac!” and then you might find yourself curious and want to “Learn More”  by following the link. 

Wrapping it up

Anchoring bias is about making a good first impression. In the absence of other information, users will rely on their initial experiences to base their decisions and understanding of a product. 

As designers, we can use this to our advantage by being mindful and guiding users to the desired journey. 

Good anchors have the potential to lower the cognitive load of decision-making and make for a positive user experience. 


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