Marketing Psychology: Commitment Bias

Commitment Bias

This is the first entry in a series of posts I’ll be doing about sales psychology. This won’t be a series of consecutive posts but rather a subject that I’ll post about from time to time. In the series, you’ll learn about specific techniques that can be used to increase sales and conversions. Once you’ve read about them, you’ll soon recognize them in many advertising campaigns online and off.

To start off, I want to introduce an easily exploitable psychological bias called the commitment bias.

An Extreme Example

Since you’re on the Internet, it’s quite likely that you’ve come across the great secret of the Scientology sect. They have this theory about aliens being banned to earth and then nuked and now the alien souls somehow attach themselves to humans and that’s what makes us ill. Something along those lines, anyway. If you want more detail, just Google “what scientology really believes”, there’s lots of info to be found.

The point is that this story with the alien souls and all that is completely over the top and ridiculous. It’s so silly that it begs the question: How can anyone possibly believe something like that?

Well, it’s actually not surprising at all that members of Scientology would believe this. Scientology is a hierarchical organization in which you have to “work your way up” and, more importantly, spend a lot of money if you want to “advance”.

By the time you are “ready” for the “real truth” with the aliens and all that, you’ve likely been a member for years and years, spent a lot of time in the organization, made friends and valuable connections and spent a bucketload of cash on your development.

In other words, you’ve already made a huge commitment to the organization. So huge that it’s easier to believe a completely ridiculous story than it is to admit: “I’ve been wrong all those years and I’ve wasted all that money and effort.”

Something like that can be hard to admit. And the more time, money and effort you invest, the harder it is to admit it. Consequently, you will subconsciously do your best to deny any evidence against the beliefs you’ve committed to.

This is the commitment bias in action.

Real Life

Okay, as the heading stated, that was an extreme example and you probably aren’t planning to build a cult (though that might be a lucrative business-model), so let’s get this closer to real life.

The commitment bias can be seen in use in many everyday situations, in a much milder way. Quite simply, the marketer wants the prospect to make some kind of a commitment (time, money or effort) towards the product or service he’s selling. This can greatly increase the chances of turning the prospect into a buyer.

Here are some examples:

  • Cheap Trials
    Notice how many services don’t offer a free trial, but instead they offer an extremely cheap trial? Like a $1 trial or a $7 trial?
    Well, the marketers behind this aren’t after that one buck. They want you to make a (tiny) commitment to the product and they want your credit card details (for a painless transition to the fully priced service). If you pay even a small amount for a trial, you are much more likely to actually use the product or service. And by using it, you are once again committing time to it and putting some effort into learning how to use it (if it’s something like a software program). You might also get in contact with other members or support staff or coaches and get to like them. Those are all small, but significant commitments that will make it much more likely you’ll opt for the full-priced service after the trial period.
  • High Price
    This is a particularly simple one and it’s especially relevant for non-refundable purchases. It’s a lot easier to say “That thing I just spent five bucks on is total rubbish” that it is to say “That thing I just spent thousands of dollars on is total rubbish”, even if you’re just saying it to yourself. If you’ve spent a lot of money on something, you’ll try harder to find it’s positive aspects.
  • Participation/Interaction
    Many give-away promotions require you to do something like fill out a survey or post a video or a funny picture, in order to enter the draw for the grand prize.
    Again, with your participation, you’re investing yourself in the product or brand (in a small way) and this activates the commitment bias.
  • Yes-Set
    Here’s an old-school one that comes from tele-marketing and face-to-face marketing. Many sales-people will try to ask you some questions that you’ll inevitably answer with a “yes” and that subtly steer you towards wanting the product. You’ll find similar tactics used in sales-copy as well.
    To give a stupidly simple example, a TV sales-person might ask things like “You want to be able to relax and enjoy a really good movie from time to time, right?”, “A bigger screen with better colours is always better, isn’t it?”, “I really enjoy the booming sound-effects you get in a cinema. How about you?”.
    These are all questions with obvious “yes” answers (and the sales-rep might just keep talking, leaving you to answer the questions in your head). Once he gets to the TV he wants to sell you, guess what? It has all those features! Bigger screen, better sound quality, better colours… You obviously want this, right? I mean, you said “yes” to all those questions and this here is exactly what you’re looking for. Or were you lying before?
    Again, this is the commitment bias in action. Also, a good sales-rep will find better questions than I did for this example (hopefully).
  • Unskippable Sales-Videos
    This is hot in Internet marketing right now. Many products are being marketed with videos that cannot be fast-forwarded and that don’t allow you to skip ahead in any way. Some don’t have any navigation at all; you can’t even pause them and you don’t know how long they’re going to last (hint: Usually, it’s very, very long).
    This can be hugely annoying, but the reason this is being done has to do with the commitment bias. If you’ve just invested 45 minutes of your time watching a video and now you hear that the offer is limited and it’s going to expire any minute, you’re much more likely to buy than if you had skipped ahead after a few minutes and seen the outrageous price.

Bottom Line

I’m pretty sure that in your lifetime you’ve made several purchases as a direct result of the commitment bias. And I’m also pretty sure that you were unaware of it. That’s the beauty of good sales psychology: You never realize it’s happening.

Is it wrong to use such techniques to “manipulate” prospects? I don’t think so. Not in and of itself, anyway. You can go too far with manipulation, but if you don’t do any of it, you’ll never make a sale.

In my sales psychology posts, I don’t want to judge whether something is right or wrong. I simply want to show you some neat little tricks so you can be aware of them. As a consumer as well as a marketer.

That’s all for now. More mind-games will be “exposed” (what an over-used word) in future posts.


P.S.: I caught a pretty bad cold and have been a mess for almost a week. That’s why I didn’t post much. In case today’s post seems weird: It’s not my fault, I’m still not fully recovered. ;)

Once I am, I’ll get to work on those reviews again.


I'm Shane Melaugh and I'm the guy writing most of the posts on this blog. My goal is to provide you with useful, straight-forward insights on how to grow your business by creating compelling offers, driving traffic and increasing conversions.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 3 comments
Gary Gregory - February 23, 2010

Hi Shane, I really like the idea of this post and the ones you are to publish in the future. Quite interesting indeed. Before I started my online career, I was involved in sales, sales management and sales training on an executive level, so this is particularly relevant to me.

That said, there are so many layers to the sales process that it could really makes ones head spin, lol. To this day I am still fascinated by the psychology behind the sales process.

Thank you and I look forward to reading more.

    Shane - February 24, 2010

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree, sales psychology and psychology in general is very interesting. More often than not, the choices people end up making are very counter-intuitive.
    You’re right that it can all make one’s head spin. In small and hopefully actionable portions, I hope that my readers can make the most of it, though. :)

Griff - March 6, 2011

Another really thought-provoking post, Shane. Especially your uncontrollable video example. My personal rule of thumb on these is that if they show no appreciation of the value of my precious time, and have such little faith in their selling proposition that it’s too weak to allow me to judge its merits on my terms, then I view them as unlikely to be a source that I would buy from even if I watched the whole pitch! So I never bother to watch them. I readily admit that they are probably effective with certain prospects, but my time comes at a pretty high hourly rate…


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