Using Cognitive Biases in Sales & Software Trials: Loss Aversion, the Endowment Effect, and the Scarcity Bias

The 3 Cognitive Biases in Sales That Often Get Confused

Learn the psychology behind 3 key cognitive biases in sales and discover how software companies leverage them to entice you into free trials of their premium features.

Bastian Mx Moritz
Oct 2023

For Salespeople and Marketer understanding the psychological underpinnings of consumer behavior is paramount. Cognitive biases, those systematic deviations from logical decision-making, often form the bedrock of compelling marketing and sales strategies.

Yet, while many of these biases have been extensively studied and utilized (and retracted or criticized), there's a subset that often gets conflated or misunderstood due to their overlapping themes.

This article dissects three such biases: Loss Aversion, the Endowment Effect, and the Scarcity Bias. We show you why these biases often get muddled and why it's crucial to understand them distinctly.


Loss Aversion: Rooted in the pain of losing being felt more intensely than the joy of gaining, this bias pushes consumers to avoid potential losses at all costs.

Endowment Effect: Once we own something, we intrinsically value it more. It’s the psychological ownership that amplifies an item's worth in our eyes.

Scarcity Bias: The rarer something seems, the more valuable it becomes. This bias leans heavily on the principle of supply and demand.

While each bias has its distinct essence, they often get intertwined in sales tactics, leading to a layered psychological impact on consumers.

Loss Aversion: The Pain of Losing vs. The Joy of Gaining

Loss aversion refers to the psychological phenomenon where the emotional impact of a loss is felt more intensely than an equivalent gain. In other words, losing $100 feels worse than the joy of gaining $100.

This isn't just about finances; it's about any perceived loss, from missing out on a sale to forgoing an experience.

Ever seen a "limited-time offer" or a "last chance to buy" banner? That's loss aversion at play. Marketers want consumers to feel the impending sense of potential loss to spur them into action.

Endowment Effect: Ownership Amplifies Value

The endowment effect is the cognitive bias where people assign more value to things merely because they own them.

This bias nudges individuals to value something more, simply because they own it. It's the reason why that old, worn-out shirt in your closet, which you haven't worn in years, still feels invaluable. We start to value money in the bank more than before we owned it.

"Try before you buy" isn't just a generous offer; it's a strategic move. By allowing consumers temporary ownership, they begin to value the product more, increasing the likelihood of a final purchase.

Scarcity Bias: Limited Supply, Unlimited Demand

This bias refers to the principle that people place a higher value on an object that is scarce and a lower value on those that are abundant. The perception of scarcity can increase demand.

In the simplest terms, we want what we can't have. The watch you cannot get but have to be invited to buy? If something is scarce, its perceived value skyrockets. The less there is of something, the more we want it.

Those "only 2 items left" or "offer ends in 3 hours" notifications? They're capitalizing on the scarcity bias, pushing consumers to act swiftly or risk missing out.

Biases and How They Often Get Mixed Up

The true complexity arises when these biases intersect.

Overlap with Loss Aversion & Scarcity Bias

Both biases deal with the fear of missing out. Scarcity bias emphasizes the limited availability of something, while loss aversion focuses on the potential regret of not acting, of not “seizing an opportunity”. It's a subtle difference. But in the world of sales, it's a line that often blurs because, in both cases, the underlying emotion is the fear of loss.

Overlap with Loss Aversion & Endowment Effect

Offering a trial period of a product or service lets consumers "own" it temporarily. And once a person has something, they might feel a potential loss more acutely when considering giving it up, which combines the principles of both the endowment effect and loss aversion. So as the trial ends, the looming loss, amplified by the temporary ownership, can compel consumers to make a purchase.

Example of the Bias Overlap in Software Trials

To illustrate, consider a software company offering a "limited-time free trial" of its premium features.

  1. Scarcity Bias: The "limited-time" aspect pushes the user to sign up immediately, lest they miss out on the opportunity.
  2. Endowment Effect: Once the user has accessed the premium features and incorporated them into their workflow, they begin to value these features more.
  3. Loss Aversion: As the trial period nears its end, the user is reminded that they'll be "losing" these premium features unless they purchase the full version. The potential pain of this loss (especially after having grown accustomed to the features due to the endowment effect) might motivate the user to buy the full version.

The scarcity of the "limited-time" offer, combined with the endowment of using the premium features, and the impending loss at the trial's end, creates a powerful cocktail of biases pushing the consumer towards a purchase.

Why Distinguishing Matters for Your Business

In sales psychology cognitive biases are powerful players. Understanding, distinguishing, and ethically applying these biases can be the difference between short-lived success and sustainable growth.

For businesses, distinguishing between these biases can help in tailoring more effective and ethical sales strategies. Over-relying on one in your strategic sales approaches can be detrimental, but a well-balanced approach can lead to better customer relationships and improved sales.

For professionals and customers alike, understanding the nuances can lead to more rational choices, avoiding pitfalls of impulsive buying or selling. Yes, buying in selling, because it can enhance customer trust if you are transparently leveraging these biases, especially in an era where we all are increasingly wary of manipulative sales tactics. Long-term customer relationships are built on trust and value, not manipulation.

In Conclusion

In essence, while these three biases have distinct definitions and mechanisms, their applications in sales and marketing often intertwine, leading to strategies that play on multiple biases simultaneously.

For the astute marketer or sales strategist, understanding each of these cognitive biases is invaluable. However, the true mastery lies not just in understanding them individually, but in recognizing their interplay and the nuanced ways they can be harnessed collectively. As the lines between these biases blur, the opportunities to craft compelling, effective strategies only expand. But as with all powerful tools, they must be used ethically, ensuring consumers are always making informed decisions. E.g., using the scarcity bias of "only 2 items left" when there is no real shortage of stock is not just unethical but also against the law in many jurisdictions.


How do these biases differ from simple sales tactics like discounts or loyalty rewards?

While discounts and loyalty rewards are direct incentives for consumers to make a purchase or repeat a purchase, cognitive biases work at a more subconscious level. They tap into inherent human tendencies and emotions, nudging consumers towards certain behaviors. For instance, while a discount might offer a tangible monetary saving, the fear of missing out on that discount (due to loss aversion) is a cognitive bias at play.

Are there any potential negative consequences for businesses that heavily rely on exploiting these biases?

Over-reliance or manipulative use of these biases can lead to consumer distrust in the long run and are often illegal. For instance, if a business constantly claims "only 2 items left" but never runs out of stock, consumers might perceive this as deceitful and report your business. Trust is a cornerstone of brand loyalty, and should never be challenged.

How can businesses ensure they're leveraging these biases ethically?

Transparency is key. If there's genuine scarcity, it's fine to communicate that, but creating artificial scarcity will backfire. Businesses should aim to provide real value and build trust. While understanding and leveraging cognitive biases can enhance sales strategies, they should be used to align with genuine offers and authentic brand messaging.

How can consumers become more aware and make informed decisions, given these biases?

Awareness is the first step. By understanding these biases and recognizing when they might be influencing our decisions, consumers can pause and evaluate their choices more rationally. It's also beneficial to differentiate between a genuine need or desire and an impulse driven by perceived scarcity or potential loss.

Are there other cognitive biases that businesses should be aware of in their sales strategies?

Yes, there are numerous cognitive biases that influence human decision-making. Some other examples include

  • the Confirmation Bias (where individuals seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs),
  • the Halo Effect (where a positive trait of a product or brand influences perceptions of its other attributes), and
  • the Bandwagon Effect (where people do something primarily because others are doing it).

Each of these can also play a role in sales and marketing strategies.

How do digital platforms, like online shopping sites, incorporate these biases in their interfaces?

Digital platforms have a unique advantage in leveraging real-time data and user behavior analytics. Features like "People also bought," "Only a few left in stock," or "Sale ends in X hours" are clear implementations of the scarcity bias.

Pop-ups reminding users of items left in their cart tap into loss aversion.

Personalized recommendations can sometimes stem from confirmation bias, showing users what aligns with their previous behaviors and preferences.

Ready? Set. Growth!
Learn about growing your organization and the impact of its mission and other insights & stories about Customer-centricity and Organic Growth: