Using Cognitive Dissonance in Design: Influencing Users through Discomfort

In this article, we will focus on how people experience cognitive dissonance and how we can use this psychological state in design. We will also look at some real-world examples and dive deeper into how people try to reduce dissonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance theory?

Before going through the definition, let’s take a look at what dissonance and consonance are. When our beliefs conflict with each other, there is a dissonance. Similarly, when two cognitions agree with each other there is a consonance, a state of comfort.

Cognitive Dissonance is a state of mental discomfort. People facing discomfort are motivated to reduce it and reach a state of consonance.

Some examples of cognitive dissonance:

  1. A brilliant actor you like starts starring in some flops.
  2. Liking meat while being an animal lover.
  3. Knowing too much alcohol is harmful while liking to drink.
  4. Being health-conscious while being seated at work most of the day without much exercise.

Let’s dissect the last example:

A man is very health conscious but he also has to work sitting in a chair for long stretches of hours.

Conflict: He is very conscious about his health vs He has to work overtime which can cause back pain.

Reaction: In this case, the man will try to compensate for his current habit by eating healthy. He might also exercise more on the weekends to reach a comfortable state of mind.

How will he try to reduce the discomfort?

People tend to do the following things to reduce discomfort:

  1. Adding positive belief to reduce discomfort: Look up websites where it reinforces the value that exercising twice a week will help avoid the back pain.
  2. Reducing the importance of discomfort to justify the conflicting behavior: Exercising twice a week to reduce the importance of the conflict. Here the conflict whose importance is reduced being: sitting for too long can cause back pain.
  3. Changing behavior to find balance: Working for lesser hours to keep healthy habits. This might be implemented by reducing the hours gradually over some time.

Using Dissonance in Design

The goal is to create discomfort and use the user’s desire to feel comfortable in our advantage.

1. Using dissonance in UX Copy, Advertising, and Marketing

Let’s begin with how we can structure a sentence to influence the user. A Marketing message for a prescription software: “Managing prescriptions is hard, too much paperwork. Don’t worry we will take care of it for you.” First, we created discomfort by reminding the users of all the paperwork involved in prescription changes and delivery. Then we create a consonance by saying them all they have to register. The app does all the heavy lifting for them.

We can look at error messages as an example. Everyone makes mistakes but we as designers can point them on how to fix their mistakes.

For example, A user tries signing in using an account that is registered with Google. We show an error of “The email you entered is registered with Google. Sign in with Google instead.”

The first part says that they have used the email in the wrong place. The second part guides them on how they can resolve it.

2. Branding and first impressions matter

First impressions matter for users to decide if they want to keep using your product. A good branding influence users to discard the minor issues present in our product. Aesthetic usability effect comes into play here.

3. Influence Purchasing decision

When buying refurbished products, websites and sellers provide a year guarantees and warranties. This is because people don’t want to risk buying a compromised product. The conflict of buying products that will fit their budgets vs risking the possibility of a faulty product. To reach consonance they are willing to buy the product if they get warranties and guarantees.

4. Example: Free trials for conversion

Most web and mobile apps offer monthly free trials before having users pay for the service. The entry point for users is quite inviting with only investment being time taken to set up the account.

After the trial is over, users have to compare the time investment and benefit of purchasing the service. If the investment was well worth it, people tend to purchase the subscription.

how companies use foot in the door technique to boost conversion
Original image by totango. The graph shows how free trial conversions to paying users are used by Best in Class SaaS applications.

In the image above, we can see how this technique can help with user conversions. Freemium services such as Spotify and Slack have conversions of 26.6% and 30% respectively which is a really high conversion ratio.

Summing Up

Let us focus on the key points from the article:

  • People facing discomfort are motivated to perform activities that help them reach a state of comfort.
  • People try reducing discomfort by adding positive beliefs, reduce the importance of conflicting beliefs and changing behavior.
  • As marketers and designers, we can use dissonance to influence purchasing decisions and help users get solutions faster.

If you want to see my experimentation on Dissonance marketing tests and all its outcomes, I would suggest you take a look at my article on How psychology is used in marketing.

Further Reading

If you are looking to research some more marketing psychologies I suggest you take a look at Framing Effect: Influencing Decision Making in Product Design & Marketing and Conformity Bias: How Marketers use Social Trends to their Advantage.

If you are looking for a list of major cognitive biases used by marketers then I suggest you take a look at List of Cognitive Biases used by Marketers.

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