The Psychological Discomfort Of Buyer’s Remorse

With Nicole LeBarr, PhD, Director of Behavioural Science

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Nicole LeBarr

PhD, Director of Behavioral Science

Introduction and reminder of what is Cognitive Dissonance

Last time we covered one of the most misused psychological concepts in our field of work and that is Cognitive Dissonance.

A reminder that Cognitive Dissonance Theory hypothesizes that we have a strong need for psychological consistency. What this means is that we are driven to ensure that our attitudes are aligned with our behaviour (and that individual attitudes are consistent with one another).

Because we have a drive for consistency, we feel psychological tension and discomfort (or "cognitive dissonance") when an attitude and a behaviour are at odds with one another. For instance, the behaviour of smoking cigarettes, with the attitude that smoking causes cancer.

So when we feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we are highly motivated and driven to resolve the discrepancy by changing the attitude or behaviour.

If doing so is not possible, then we engage in 'cognitive gymnastics' like justification to help make the attitude and behaviour less conflicting and maintain both of them.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

COVID-19 Pandemic
To give you a practical example from our everyday, I think the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a lot of Cognitive Dissonance into our lives.

At this point we've all been locked down for over a year and there is a lot of temptation to engage in fun but 'unsafe' behaviours that put ourselves or others at risk. At the same time, we have the highest number of cases we've had since the beginning of the pandemic, and hold the attitude that we are responsible people who should be behaving responsibly. This incongruence between attitudes and behaviour is uncomfortable and puts us into a state of Cognitive Dissonance.

What I've noticed in myself and among those close to me is that when met with this Cognitive Dissonance, we engage in a number of cognitive gymnastics to help resolve the discomfort:
Justify the risky behaviour as something we HAD to do
Ignore the news on caseloads so we are less reminded of how bad things are
Tell ourselves that we're not the real problem and that others are engaging in much riskier things than us

We can see from these mental gymnastics how what we think is very often shaped by post-decision justification of what we've already done - something that should be familiar to you from our Feel - Do - Think framework.

Now that you have a sense of how this plays out in day-to-day life, I promised you that in this segment, we'd talk through a practical example of Cognitive Dissonance at play in consumer behaviour.

Buyer's Remorse
A great example of this is Buyer's Remorse, which is a feeling of regret we often get after having made a purchase, a result of Cognitive Dissonance. Buyer's remorse is incredibly common - most people view themselves as competent decision-makers, but not all things we buy will be good.

Our attitude is that: I am a good decision-maker
But our behaviour is that: I chose poorly
… and this clash in attitude and behaviour creates Cognitive Dissonance that must be resolved.

One way dissonance can be reduced is by changing the behaviour and returning the product.

But if that's not possible, we are motivated to create post-decision satisfaction for ourselves by engaging in 'Cognitive Gymnastics'. For instance, by telling ourselves…

I didn't have the time to make an informed decision
The brand tricked me!
It was a temporary mistake that I will never make again (i.e. no repeat purchase)

These latter two justifications can be particularly harmful for brands in the long run and suggest that marketers would be well-served by understanding not just pre-purchase but also post-purchase barriers so they can try to pre-empt them. For instance…

By offering consumers added protection like servicing for the life of the product or other perks for being a loyal customer.
Or, in the case of expensive purchases, where the possibility for buyer's remorse is strongest, free trials allow consumers to (risk-free) get used to having the product or service in their lives without having to feel any remorse around paying for it.

So with that, you should now have a good understanding of Cognitive Dissonance and how to apply it to your everyday life and work. I'd would love to hear your best examples of Cognitive Dissonance in action as you encounter them over the comings weeks.