I am a graduate in Behavioural Economics at the LSE (London School of Economics) and an approved consultant for United Kingdom Trade & Industry (UKTI) and Enterprise Nation. Danny Richman is a leading website marketing and Search Engine Optimisation expert with over 15 years' experience.
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While recently watching an episode of, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I was fascinated by how often contestants lost large sums of money by incorrectly answering questions while they still had several “Life Lines” available. Why did they take unnecessary risks when they clearly didn’t know the right answer?
I also observed how contestants would “Phone a Friend” and ask the friend how confident they were about their answer. The friend would reply, “about 90% certain” or “50% certain”. If they were not 100% certain about recalling a piece of information, how could they determine their own degree of certainty or lack of it?
Now it’s your turn… Please answer these questions:
Q1) What is the capital city of Australia?
Q2) How confident are you that you answered Q1 correctly?
Q3) How likely do you think it is that other people will answer Q1 correctly.
Conducting a Confidence Survey
I conducted an online survey of 1,467 people in the UK and USA asking the same three questions listed above. The participants could choose from one of 6 possible answers to Q1. They were asked to rate Q2 and Q3 on a sliding scale from 1 to 10.
How able were the participants to answer Question 1 correctly?
Out of 1,467 people who answered the question, 667 (45.4%) gave the correct answer (Canberra). I suspected that many people would struggle to answer this question but might believe they knew the correct answer. Although Canberra was the most popular answer, a few participants may have cheated by looking it up on Google. Regardless, the purpose of this study was not to test the participants’ geographic knowledge.
Does confidence correlate with ability?
As you can see from the chart below, respondents with a high confidence score were much more likely to answer Q1 correctly. I found it fascinating that this correlation was almost as strong within a confidence range of 2-7 as for those in the range of 8-10. This suggests that even if you only are only slightly more confident of knowing the right answer, there is a good chance that you actually do.
This is a well-researched area of psychology know as Metamemory; the self-awareness of one’s own ability to recall a piece of information. One theory suggests that it is the question itself that gives us the ability to recall a memory. For example, had I asked the respondents to simply name all the capital cities they know, there is a good chance that many of those who knew Canberra is the capital of Australia would not have mentioned this city. It is only by asking the more specific question they were able make a connection to that piece of information stored in their brain.
Are Americans or Brits more likely to know the capital of Australia?
If we were to pose this question to a monkey there is a 1 in 6 probability (16.66%) that they would answer correctly. Any evaluation we make of the participants’ ability must therefore be compared to the likelihood of selecting the correct answer by chance alone.
The data shows that Americans were only slightly more skilled than monkeys when it came to answering correctly (18.2% correct answers) while 55.3% of Brits answered correctly.
Brits have a much closer connection to Australia than Americans. They are significantly more likely to have visited Australia and have friends or family living in the country. There are, in fact, more Brits living and working in Australia than in the whole of Europe. It is therefore of little surprise that Brits would perform better than Americans on this specific question.
How about those who were highly confident of their own ability but still got the answer wrong?
Here is where things get a little more interesting. There were 211 people (14.4%) who, although highly confident about knowing the answer, nevertheless answered incorrectly. 16% of Americans fell into this category compared to only 7% of Brits.
Americans, in general, appear to be more than twice as confident in their own ability, even when that confidence is misplaced. I must qualify this by saying that I wasn’t able to control for every factor that may have led to Americans showing misplaced confidence such as education level, access to travel, social class etc.
How about those with low confidence but got the answer right?
Only 3% of Americans doubted themselves but got the answer right compared to 9% of Brits. Interestingly, all those with low self-confidence performed significantly worse than monkeys. Those with low self-confidence were far more likely to have given an answer of Sydney or Melbourne, the two best-known cities in Australia.
It seems that if you lack confidence about knowing the answer to a question, you would be up to five times more likely to answer correctly using a random selection method (e.g. tossing a coin) rather than trying to guess the correct answer.
Does knowing the correct answer affect your judgement of how others might answer?
This is a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which has been extensively researched since the late 90’s. These studies (and my own) show that people with high ability assume an answer to be easier than it is and assume that others will know it too. Conversely, those with low ability imagine a question to be harder than it is and under-estimate the likelihood of other people answering correctly.
“Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. When we think we are at our best is sometimes when we are at our objective worst.”
– David Dunning & Justin Kruger
Confidence and ability in business
In my work as a consultant and trainer, I see the effects of self-confidence and its impact on business growth on an almost daily basis.
People with low self-confidence
The cost to a business of an employee or founder with low self-confidence is well known. People with low confidence may mistakenly assume tasks to be harder than they really are. This can prevent them even attempting to accomplish a challenge when they could realistically overcome it.
People with low self-confidence are also less willing to take on tasks that involve risk-taking for fear of being “caught out”. They spend so much of their time and mental energy covering up for a perceived lack of ability that most of their true potential is wasted. It takes a very special organisational culture to bring out the best in these people and give them the support they need to feel safe enough to take risks.
People with high self-confidence
Those with high confidence and strong ability will often end up in the most senior positions within an organisation. While they may be less afraid of taking risks, they may also mistakenly perceive tasks they find simple as being equally simple for everyone else. These people can be tough bosses and managers.
Perhaps the most dangerous of all are the people with high confidence and low ability. 30% of all high-confidence participants in this study fell into this category. These are people who take risks based on little more than their assumption that they must be right. They value instinct over data, even when that data is of high quality but contradicts their point of view.
“Smart people are very good at rationalizing things. Even if they believe them for non-smart reasons. Smart people easily brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right. Being smart, they can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right.”
– Michael Shermer
Use the diagram below to assess in which Confidence/Ability quadrant you may fall. The information contained in the quadrant may prove helpful.
This post and all original data and images are licensed under Creative Commons. You may share and reproduce this content on the condition that you link and cite this page.
This post explains how to apply Emotional Goal Optimisation (EGO) to your website. A process that doubled the traffic to my client’s site and increased her online conversions by 700% (see image above). This was achieved at zero cost by making just a few simple changes to her website. As a result, her site is now one of the highest converting sites in its industry.
By reading this post you will understand what EGO is, see evidence of how it works and understand precisely how to apply it to your own business.
Why do you behave the way you do?
Let’s imagine for a moment that I wanted to understand what drives my clients to hire me when they need some SEO training. I send my clients a questionnaire asking the following simple question:
“What prompted you to look for SEO training?”
I am likely to get responses similar to these…
“I need to get my website ranking higher on Google”
“I find SEO confusing and need some expert help”
“I am tired of seeing my competitors outrank me on Google”
The problem with conducting any survey or questionnaire is that your respondents can only give you logical, rational reasons for their decision. These are not really the answers to why my clients looked for SEO training, but how they have rationalised that decision to themselves, after the event. The truth is that most of our behaviour is driven by neither logic nor reason.
The Limbic System
The limbic system is an area deep within our brain that deals with all emotions and instincts. The activity within our limbic system is part of our subconscious mind and drives all of our decisions, behaviour and actions.
When asked to provide a reason why we have acted in a particular way, the answer we give is processed by our neocortex—the newest (neo) part of our brain responsible for all conscious thought.
Back in the 1940s – 1950s, surgeons would often perform a lobotomy on patients to cure them of anxiety disorder. The operation involved severing the connection between their logical neocortex and the emotional limbic system. While this may have cured their anxiety, it also left the patient entirely passive and devoid of all motivation.
When asked to explain our behaviour, as much as we might wish to, we cannot answer this question truthfully because we have no conscious awareness of how or why our limbic system chose to act the way it did. The best we can do is to rationalise our reasons after the behaviour has occurred.
The Limbic Map
By placing subjects inside an fMRI scanner and exposing them to materials that stimulate an emotional response (videos, images, poetry etc.), neuroscientists are able to see which areas within the limbic system are activated when specific emotions are being experienced.
They found that an emotion such as ‘love’ will be activated in the same area of the limbic system for all of subjects participating in the test. In other words, love, envy, rebelliousness and all of the other emotions we feel have a specific ‘home’ within our brain.
Neuroscientists have now produced a limbic map of the brain that shows precisely which areas within the limbic system are activated when specific emotions are being experienced.
As you can see from the image above, the limbic map is broadly divided into three key areas:
Stimulation – An area dedicated to pleasure and enjoyment.
Dominance – An area dedicated to control and discipline.
Balance – An area dedicated to stability and security
Within each of these broad regions, there are thousands of subtler, more specific emotions being activated in the limbic system. The image shown below is not a complete map of every emotion. Think of it like a map of the UK showing only the major cities and none of the smaller towns and villages.
How to apply the Limbic Map to online behaviour
I have coined the term Emotional Goal Optimisation (EGO) to describe a method of using the limbic map to better understand why people perform an online search, click on a specific search result, engage with the websites they find and then take action on that website (e.g., buy a product or make an enquiry). Applying EGO to several clients’ websites has resulted in record increases in rankings, clicks and conversions.
1. AdWords Experiments
AdWords is an advertising platform provided by Google that allows advertisers to choose specific search terms (keywords) that trigger their ad to appear in the search results. The position of their ad is determined by an auction system. The highest bidder will typically see their ad shown in the highest position on Google.
I created a campaign using Google AdWords to test the effectiveness of using emotional goals to persuade Google users to click on my ads. The idea was to create two variations of an advertisement: one with, and the other without, emotional goals and see which ad received the most clicks.
To achieve this, I had to find keywords for which there was little or no competition to minimise the cost of each click. I also had to find keywords with a high volume of searches being performed every day. This meant I would not have to wait several weeks or months to achieve statistically significant results.
1.1 AdWords Experiment – “Apple Tart Recipe”
The keyword “apple tart recipe” receives approximately 8,000 Google searches per month in the UK and USA. As there is nobody else advertising on Google for this keyword, I was able to bid just 10p per click to achieve a top page ranking on Google.
I created my first advertisement by copying the exact wording of the No.1 organic listing on Google:
This copy is designed to appeal to the ease with which this recipe can be followed and that it is a “great recipe for beginners.” This copy acted as my ‘control’ against which other ads could be tested.
When I ran this ad on Google, it achieved a click through rate (CTR) of 9.16%. That means, for every 100 people who saw the ad, 9.16% of them clicked on it.
I then considered what the emotional goals might be of someone looking for an apple tart recipe on Google.
If I were to look for an apple tart recipe on Google, in addition to a recipe that was easy to follow, I would also want a recipe that would earn me the respect, love and admiration of my family and friends (slightly embarrassed to admit this).
I then created the following variation of the ad which highlights “they will love you for this” and how the recipe will make you “feel proud hearing the compliments.”
After driving approximately 200 clicks to this ad, it achieved a click through rate of 14.6%, an improvement of 59% when compared to the original version that did not include emotional goals.
1.2 AdWords Experiment – “Cheap Perfume”
To check that the results of my “apple tart” campaign could not be simply attributed to good luck, I repeated my experiment using the keyword “cheap perfume.”
The keyword “cheap perfume” receives approximately 22,000 searches per month in the UK and USA. Once again, the competition for this keyword is very low so I was able to buy clicks for approximately 15p each.
I created another control ad based on the listing that appears in the No.1 organic position on Google (see below):
This copy plays on the great deals on offer and the fact that the customer can buy “designer perfume” at a low price.
When I ran this ad on Google, it achieved an astonishing click through rate (CTR) of 20.73%. This ad was going to be hard to beat!
I considered the emotional goals of someone looking for cheap perfume on Google. I decided they are unlikely to be much different from someone looking to buy any perfume, other than a greater concern for the price.
Have you noticed that whenever you see ads on TV or magazines for perfume or aftershave, they never mention the smell of the perfume? We typically see images of attractive models in seductive poses fighting off other attractive models of the opposite sex. Most perfumes and aftershaves are sold on the unspoken promise that wearing their scent will make you significantly more attractive to the opposite sex.
I therefore created the following variation of the ad highlighting the word “celebrity” and explaining how the perfume will make you “completely irresistible.” (To be honest, I wasn’t entirely happy with the wording of my ad and felt that, with a little more time, I could have created something much more appealing and … seductive.)
Although uncertain that this ad would achieve better results than the control ad, it nevertheless achieved a click through rate of 25.1% after 200 clicks. This was an improvement of 21.08% compared to the original version that did not contain any emotional goals. I am confident that had I spent more time working on the copy, I could have achieved an even bigger uplift.
I was enjoying this game, and wanted to try one final experiment, this time using a much less sexy search query.
The keyword, “free powerpoint templates” receives approximately 27,100 searches per month in the UK and USA. There is little competition for this keyword, so I was able to buy clicks for approximately 10p per click.
Once again, I created an advertisement based on the wording of the listing that appeared in the No.1 organic position on Google (see below):
This copy plays entirely on the wide range of templates on offer. When I ran this ad on Google, it achieved a click through rate (CTR) of 13.58%.
I then considered what the emotional goals might be of someone looking for a free PowerPoint template. As someone who has performed this exact search on Google, it wasn’t hard for me to empathise with the teachers, executives and professionals looking for cool templates for their next presentation. I decided that, ultimately, we are all desperate to impress, inspire our audience and to create a positive impression.
I therefore created the following ad variation and included the line “templates to inspire and impress your audience”
This ad achieved a Click through Rate of 16.76% after 200 clicks. An improvement of 23.4% when compared to the original version that did not include emotional goals.
AdWords experiment conclusions
It seems that including emotional goals in the copy of your ads improves engagement even when the product or service is quite dull and your target market includes people that you might have assumed to be making logical, rational decisions.
I would love to try another experiment on a high-value, low volume keyword such as “accounting software”. Unfortunately, the click cost would be far too prohibitive without the ability to generate real income from this campaign. If there are any accounting software companies out there willing to let me play with their AdWords budget – please get in touch.
EGO for Landing Pages
Using emotional goals in the copy of your advertisements is only part of the story. When your website or landing page is designed to satisfy those same emotional goals, you are also likely to see a big improvement in online engagement and conversions.
In a recent study from SEMrush looking at factors that most closely correlate with higher organic rankings on Google, among the top items were:
Time on site
Average pages viewed per session
Google is increasingly moving towards user satisfaction signals to determine which pages should be shown in the highest positions in the search results.
Landing Page Experiment
Imagine you are about to perform the following search on Google:
There are approximately 50,000 people every year performing this search in the UK. I imagine that many of these people already have a bank account that was opened when they became a student or first started work. For whatever reason, they are now looking to change banks; presumably dissatisfied with their existing current account provider.
Now look at the image of the limbic map below and try to put yourself in the shoes of someone about to perform this search on Google. Which emotional goals do you feel would be driving your search?
When I think about how I might feel about the prospect of looking for a new current account, most of my emotional goals are clustered within the “Balance” section. Goals such as “trust” and “reliability” would be important drivers in my search for a new bank.
However, when I think about all the major high-street banks, I would find it hard to differentiate between HSBC, Barclays or Nat West when it comes to trust and reliability. They all feel equally trustworthy (or untrustworthy) to me.
I am, however, aware that the process of opening a new current account is likely to be a boring, time-consuming and complicated chore that involves filling out forms and having to prove my identity. Any bank that promised to make this process quick, easy and simple is likely to get the attention of my limbic system!
With that in mind, and assuming you were looking for a bank account that was quick and easy to open, which of these listings would you click on?
The following three stood out for me as offering something that felt “quick” and “easy”:
Simply including these words in your Google listing is not sufficient. We also have to ensure that the visitor’s emotional goals are satisfied when they arrive on the landing page.
The limbic system also differs from the neocortex (rational part of the brain) in the amount of time it takes to process information. The neocortex is relatively slow as it attempts to make a logical interpretation of the information being received. The limbic system, on the other hand, processes information almost instantaneously.
When a visitor arrives on a landing page of your website, it will typically take them less than 50 milliseconds (half a second) to determine whether or not that page is emotionally relevant to their needs.
To see this for yourself, please watch the (30-second) video below showing a few of these banks’ landing pages for just 50 milliseconds each. After each clip, think about whether the landing page satisfied your need for a bank account that would be fast and simple to open.
Please note: The video contains an audio countdown to make you aware of when the image will be shown. Please mute your device if you are in an environment where audio should not be played.