Aug 312011

How To Sell More With Cognitive Dissonance

Even though the vast majority of people will tell you that they “don’t like to sell,” when pressed, they’ll still admit to you that they’d like to know how to sell more, right?

Selling anything is a very uncomfortable process for many people, almost as bad as public speaking.  This is not the article to go into all the reasons for the overwhelming discomfort felt by most when they even think about having to sell something to someone.  In brief, at the core of the discomfort is a fear of rejection and a great hope that the prospective customer will just figure out that our solution is better.  For those of you who have fought the sales and marketing battle for any period of time, it’s understood that most prospects don’t “just figure it out”.

So, if you don’t love to sell, this article will not fully help you overcome that feeling, but it will give you a better understanding of a tool that you should be using constantly to conquer even your most hardened, “objection rich” prospects.  That tool is cognitive dissonance, or as I sometimes like to call it, “cog diss” or “Socratic cog diss”.

Ok, so what is this cognitive dissonance?  It is defined by Webster’s Dictionary ( as:  psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.  In other words, you cannot believe two different (and inconsistent) things at once.  If you give it a try, you’ll realize that almost always, your mind will grind to a screeching halt and basically force you to choose one or the other opposing belief.  If it doesn’t, or you refuse to make a choice, your mind will send you (figuratively) around and around in circles until you finally make a choice between the “incongruous beliefs”.

What does cognitive dissonance have to do with sales and marketing, you ask?  Everything.  In sales and marketing, whether subtly or very directly, we are trying to convince a person or a group of people to make a purchase, or take some other specific action.  In order to do so effectively, we must persuade them to believe that going with our product or service is the right thing to do.  We must convince them, or better yet, have them convince themselves, that purchasing our solution will best solve the issues that they want to solve.  We know we’re not offering the only solution, but we want the prospect to come to the conclusion that we’re offering the “best solution”.

In order for the prospect to think that our solution will best solve the problem or issue they are facing, it is likely that we will have to help them change what they already believe!  Chances are that when you show up on the scene, whether it be virtually or in person, the prospect does not have the preconceived notion that you are the best solution and the sale is “yours to lose”.  Does that happen to you often?  If it does, then congratulations, as you and your company have done a great job of positioning your brand and offerings in the marketplace.  For everyone else, listen carefully.  Just about the only way for you to overcome the “objections” running around in the mind of the prospect, will be to introduce cognitive dissonance to the “conversation”.  Let me give you an example to clarify.

Let’s say that you sell financial planning services.  To keep it simple, let’s say that you focus just on helping clients optimize their investment portfolios, based on their risk appetite and other key factors, such as age, current and desired future lifestyle, etc.  If you sell such services, one of the common objections you probably run into is, “thanks, but I have that covered with a financial planner friend of mine that I’ve been using for ten years”.  This objection is not uncommon in all kinds of industries, with the prospect’s essential belief being, “I don’t need another solution; I’ve got this covered”.  There are probably few prospect objections more difficult to overcome than this, particularly in this specific case, where the clever prospect plays the “friend card” and also refers to the long-term “10 year” solution already in place.

In such cases, and in all cases where the prospective customer has convinced himself or herself that they’re “all set,” the best tool that you can put to use, and perhaps your only real hope, is cognitive dissonance.  How do you do it?  First, you must do your homework and understand in great detail the true risks the prospect faces with their “all set” attitude.  Next, you must ask a series of questions in an unobtrusive and inoffensive way that cause the prospect to understand that maybe they don’t have it all covered after all.  Finally, you must demonstrate with as much certainty as possible that your solution offers a much higher probability of satisfying the concerns that they have about potential risks they face and benefits they seek in making this purchase.

Now back to the financial planning services situation, to make the example more concrete.  Let’s say that your prospect tells you they’re “all set”.  Rather than walk away with your tail between your legs, ask them for the chance to ask them a few questions, in order to “confirm that they have some key emerging market risks covered”.  They’ll object again, with a strong desire to “protect their certainty” – by the way, no one likes to be in a state of cognitive dissonance – uncertainty is uncomfortable.  Assure them that you’ll be brief and won’t waste their time.  When you sit down with them or speak with them on the phone, your job will be to “sow the seeds of doubt” (cognitive dissonance) in the top five areas of risk that they likely face in their “all set” state of mind.  Given that the tax code and other factors related to financial planning change with great frequency, you probably won’t have a shortage of potential “doubt seeds”.  Choose and utilize those that you believe to be most relevant to the prospect.

There are a couple of caveats to using cognitive dissonance in your sales and marketing.  First, and perhaps most importantly, you will have to find a balance between pushing hard enough and not being condescending.  You’ll need to test this.  Being condescending is not likely to get you anywhere.  Finding just the right mix of “cog diss” is likely to get you results beyond what you’ve ever achieved in the past, so it’s worth seeking and finding the balance.  Second, don’t expect miracles.  Moving prospects off of long held beliefs and objections is very difficult.  In most cases, you will not get through to them, particularly on the first foray.  Think of it as a war, not a battle.  Keep “going after” those deeply held, but usually not-very-well-thought-out, beliefs of your prospective customers, and with perseverance, it will likely yield excellent results.

The key to remember in this cognitive dissonance approach is that it is very hard, if not impossible, for people to keep “incongruous beliefs” in their mind for very long.  They simply cannot co-exist simultaneously in someone’s mind without “driving them crazy”.  Your job then is to make sure that the beliefs you are trying to introduce must win at some point in the battle or the war, otherwise the pre-existing beliefs will have won, de facto.  Sometimes the prospect truly is “all set” and well-served, but in many industries, that is the exception, rather than the rule.  If what you’re offering truly is the better solution, you will feel very comfortable regularly providing the seeds of cognitive dissonance, so that your prospect can come to the right conclusion and buy from you!

We have had great success with this “cognitive dissonance approach” and mindset in our businesses.  I’m very interested in your thoughts, comments and feedback about your own experiences.  Please leave a comment or feel free to contact me at the email address below.


Paul Morin

  • Margaret (Peggy) Herrman

    Love this, as you might imagine from my background in social psy. Love the application. We (both hats) run into “we are poor, struggling, with the poor economy” all the time. My response is: “want to pull people in? build repeat business? or save your agency/program from retraining mistakes or training new people after those with institutional knowledge have departed?” Your piece lays out why this works. Thanks as always. Peggy

  • Miriam

    I hear you loud and clear about hating to sell. And this cognitive dissonance approach sounds pretty promising. I have never used that approach, or never thought about it. What has worked for me in the past is giving prospects some freebies and then if they like it they make the purchase. However when you challenge a prospect in a non threatening way, I can see how it can be successful and realize that they don’t have everything covered like they thought- and then see you are providing the very thing they need.

  • Thanks for your comments, Miriam. Yes, particularly for the prospects who’ve “dug in their heels,” or who, like most people, are just averse to change, the “cognitive dissonance approach” can work very well.

  • Thanks, Peggy. Yes, it has to be used with care, but the “cognitive dissonance approach” can work very well in certain situations. As you know better than most, people are averse to change. They become comfortable and it takes some kind of “lever” to move them out of that comfort zone — in certain situations, “cog diss” can be that lever.

  • Amber Brooks (AmberEFT)

    Great article Paul 🙂
    I find that my and sales & marketing clients have many fears and negative beliefs about selling based on passed experiences. Using various techniques we erase those negative emotions around those experiences and the fears go away also. This allows the client to enjoy selling or a better term for me is “practicing rapport.” And why are we selling? Why don’t we let the client buy? People love to buy and shop.
    Our words sometimes define our thoughts and feelings which is what drives us to be good or bad at what we do. This also works to eliminate doubts and thoughts from our negative subconscious. Once all the weeds are mowed down and pulled you have a clear path to get out of your own way and be successful. I love watching clients grow through this process. Watching anyone learn to get out of their own way is and amazing thing to see. Once this happens everything seems a 1000% easier and it just flows. Who hasn’t had one of those perfect days where everything is just working? It’s like you can’t do anything wrong if you tried. This happens because we get out of our own way.
    And I think that is what cognitive dissonance helps us do. 🙂

  • Thanks for your comments, Amber. It’s excellent that you work with clients to help them overcome their fears and negative feelings about selling — this is a much needed service for many! Your comment illustrates that the “cognitive dissonance approach” can be used for a pretty wide variety of applications. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Paul

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  • Kirk P

    Paul, this is a very good article and I can certainly apply the techniques learned here to the health and fitness industry. I meet people all the time who think they already have the solution, but their current state of health and fitness prove otherwise. I know I have the best programs and solutions in the industry bar none. I know that because they worked for me with incredible results. The problem for me sometimes is making people realize that their current course of action is taking them nowhere, and bad things will happen if they don’t make some significant changes. Your information and techniques will definitely help. Thanks!

  • Hi Kirk. I’m glad you found the article interesting and helpful. I hadn’t thought about cognitive dissonance much in the area of health and fitness, but I’d have to agree, it could be quite effective! You’re up against the old saying that, “denial isn’t just a river in Africa,” which comes into play very seriously when it comes to people rationalizing their state of health and fitness. So, that’s roughly the perfect situation for use of cognitive dissonance. You’ll have to figure out the best approaches and experiment a bit, but I agree that it certainly could be helpful as you try to break through prospect denial. Paul