The Psychology of Persuasion: 27 Fascinating Insights You Can Apply to Copywriting

Your partner gets home from work. He/she comes upstairs to find you still tapping away at your computer and poses this all-important question:

What do you want for dinner?

Your brain fires up. Billions of neurons go to work.

Which of these two scenarios follows – 1 or 2?


You run through every conceivable piece of information mulling over ingredient prices, item availability, recipes, nutritional content…

You consider the calorific value of each food item that could go into every different meal (how many calories do you need? What did you eat for lunch? How hungry are you?) and the potential cooking time (do you want to spend an hour chopping, dicing and stirring or would you rather make something simpler?).

Then you consider what you actually feel like eating (what meals have you had in the last few days? What are your eating in/out plans for the next few?).

You collate all the data and make an informed decision.


You look up from your work and say: What’s in the fridge?

I bet you said scenario 2, right?

That’s a heuristic in action. A mental shortcut to help you solve a problem or make a decision.

Imagine if you did have to think that much about what you want for dinner then multiply it by every single decision you make in a day. You’d barely get beyond choosing what to wear before bedtime!

book cover with lots of ingredients

On the whole, heuristics are useful, they help us make decisions quickly and with a lot less mental effort.

But they can lead to errors and cognitive biases in our thinking. We may try and make rational decisions all the time (and think we are doing) but in reality, we don’t.

The psychology of persuasion for copywriters

Knowing about biases helps us understand how readers and customers interpret the information we put out there, how they decide whether/when to buy things and how they make judgements about whether a brand is trustworthy.

By applying these insights to your copywriting, it’ll be more persuasive and do more of whatever it is you set out to achieve when you started writing it. Not in a creepy mind control way, in a wow, this shit really works and cuts through some of the put it out there and hope for the best sort of writing.

Some of these techniques you’ll probably be using already (like social proof to harness the bandwagon effect), some of them you might not have heard of.

Once you know about them, you can start applying them to your marketing to make it more effective.

Here they are:

    1. If we read or hear something often enough we believe it even if it isn’t true because of cognitive ease – the reduced effort involved in processing the information. Repeating your message is powerful.
    2. Repeating your message is powerful.
    3. If you use a coloured font, bright blue and red are more likely to be trusted than pale blue, yellow or green.
    4. People want things NOW and value things in the future less than having them immediately because of hyperbolic discounting, that’s the power of quick delivery, get it today, start your free trial now, don’t wait until next year to change your life…
    5. We are more likely to believe something written in bold because of the high contrast. It’s cognitive ease again. Easy to process = we believe it.
    6. We’re more likely to believe aphorisms if they rhyme (e.g. we believe Little strokes will tumble great oaks rather than Little strokes will tumble great trees) – it’s the rhyme as reason effect. Who doesn’t believe a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play?
    7. Time-limited offers work due to our perception of scarce things as more valuable and our FOMO.
    8. The decoy effect takes advantage of the fact that we often make choices based on what else is on offer, rather than absolute preferences. Creating a decoy offer can change people choices.
    9. Using simple language that’s easy to understand creates cognitive ease, which makes us more likely to believe what we’re reading – it keeps popping up.
    10. Conversely, we’re less likely to trust people and brands who use unnecessarily long words.
    11. You can influence someone’s future behaviour for up to six months simply by asking them a question about their intentions.
    12. We judge experiences not on an average of the entire experience but how we felt at the peak or most intense point and at the end – it’s called the peak-end rule.
    13. We copy people and we look where other people look (think about a crowd standing on the pavement looking up at a building – hard not to do the same thing, isn’t it?). You can make site visitors look where you want them to using images of people.
    14. Sometimes more is more. The information bias means we believe something when there is more information than less even if some of it is irrelevant.
    15. The pratfall effect makes us like people and brands more if they’re imperfect and own their faults (as long as we liked them in the first place).
    16. Influencers, testimonials, reviews, celebrity endorsements… are all using social proof to encourage us to join the club.
    17. We follow the crowd when making choices but we make emotional connections with individuals. That’s why charities (and businesses) use stories about one person or a few people.
    18. The availability heuristic means that if we can name a few occurrences of something we think it’s more prevalent than it really is. So, say, if you keep seeing the name of a local firm you think it’s huge.
    19. The Von Restorff effect means we’re more likely to remember an item if it stands out from the rest.
    20. Primacy, recency and serial position effects mean that people remember what’s at the beginning and end of lists. You can play with this in bulleted lists, putting the most important or interesting stuff at the start and end.
    21. Known as loss aversion, we generally prefer to avoid a loss rather than make the same gain. It’s why penalties can be more effective than rewards and means you can make your copy more effective by advising readers how to avoid a loss.
    22. The fallacy of sunk costs makes us carry on doing something because of all the time, effort or money we’ve spent on it already and can lead us to make irrational decisions.
    23. Using words like ‘as’ and ‘because’ make us more likely to believe something (the justification bias). Giving a reason for people to do something is powerful.
    24. Ingroup bias means we massively favour people in our tribe or community. Apple is a great example of a company appealing to members of their community in their marketing.
    25. Using anchoring in pricing can make people spend more as our brains are anchored to the first price making subsequent ones seem cheaper than if we hadn’t seen a higher price first.
    26. Once we know what we think about something the confirmation bias means we tend to seek out, focus on or interpret new information as supporting our existing beliefs.
    27. Money-back guarantees, free returns, reassuring post-sales copy… all help to overcome the common psychological phenomenon of buyers’ remorse.

If you find this stuff interesting and would like to know more about how you can use it in your work, I’m running a one-day workshop on applying behavioural insights to your copy in London in February. There’ll be lots of theory, brilliant examples and hands-on exercises.

I’ve set up some earlybird tickets and a Christmas-friendly payment option – I want everyone to be able to afford to come because it’s super-interesting AND super-useful. Places are limited so don’t miss out.

I got these comments on Twitter about my session at CopyCon in October: “Mind-blowing” “Brilliant session” “Really cool ideas” “Glorious” “So interesting” “Insightful” “Fantastic”.

Come and have your mind blown and learn how to make your copy irresistible!


What are your thoughts?