6 Cognitive Biases that Can Kill Your Sales Results

28 May 20

Cognitive biases are faulty ways of thinking that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. Here are six that can kill your sales results.

Like many, Ive spent plenty of time watching Netflix during the COVID-19 lockdown. I recently came across Salesman, a fantastic documentary from 1969 that follows four salesmen working for the Mid-American Bible Company as they sell expensive Bibles door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods.

Salesman is a time capsule, allowing the audience to experience life in 1960’s America from the point of view of old school traveling salespeople. In addition to persistent cigarette smoking, we see the gritty world of the four salesmen as they deal with constant rejection, including doors slamming in their faces, and use every sales cliché in the book (e.g., “Do you see how your family could benefit by having this beautiful bible in your home?”) to close business.

The main focus of Salesman is Paul Brennan, an experienced rep having a run of bad luck. After a few bad sales calls, Paul is starting to fear that he may have "lost it."  As the movie nears its conclusion, Paul’s increasing frustration turns to desperation. He complains bitterly about his leads, customers, and territory. During one particularly unsuccessful sales call that’s difficult to watch, Paul openly makes snide remarks about the customer after she refuses to buy.

Paul’s story in Salesman is a good reminder about how it doesn’t take much (a few bad sales calls) for a salesperson to get into a decidedly negative mindset that directly impacts performance. Such a negative mindset is often caused more by our cognitive biases than by reality.

Cognitive biases are faulty ways of thinking that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. Researchers have found that our brains are predisposed to making connections between thoughts, ideas, whether they are truly connected or not. This leads us to make false or overly simplistic assumptions.

Wikipedia has a list of over 185 cognitive biases, and, according to renowned psychiatrist and researcher David Burns, many of our negative feelings “are in fact based on such thinking errors.”

Falling for a cognitive bias is not a function of intelligence. If you’re human, you have likely been a victim of a few cognitive distortions at one time or another.

Here are list of six common cognitive biases that can negatively impact your mindset:

#1 Over-generalization

You see a single negative event as a part of a pattern of failure. This common distortion takes one or two examples and generalizes it to an overall pattern. For example, Paul had a few bad sales calls, and now he concludes that all of the prospects in his territory are bad.

#2 Recency Effect

Recent events are easier to remember, and can be weighted more heavily than past events or potential future events. It’s easy to believe, for example, that the poor COVID-19 sales environment will last forever, but history has repeatedly shown that the economy quickly adjusts to such shocks.

#3 Confirmation Bias

This is when people seek information that affirms existing beliefs while discounting or discarding information that might contradict them. This is a tough bias to overcome, but actively seeking out contradictory information or contrarian opinions can help to eliminate it.

#4 All-or-Nothing Thinking

This distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, you see things in terms of extremes – your prospects are either fantastic or awful; you believe you are either perfect or a total failure.

# 5 Mind Reading

The inaccurate belief that you know what another person is thinking. You may have an inkling as to what someone else is thinking, but this cognitive bias refers to the negative conclusions we jump to without a factual basis. For example, a customer makes an off-hand comment, and you immediately assume that they are not interested.

# 6 Fortune Telling

Similar to mind reading, fortune telling refers to our tendency to jump to conclusions (often negative) based on little evidence and believe that these conclusions are true. You predict a negative outcome and convince yourself that this prediction is a fact. For example, Paul convinced himself that his entire territory is terrible simply because he hasn’t had success yet. He simply has no way of knowing this yet, but he sees this as fact.

In today’s challenging COVID-19 sales environment, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by bad news. The difference between being someone occasionally stumbling into a cognitive distortion and Paul, the poor performing bible salesperson who is overcome by negative thoughts, is the ability to identify and then modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.

Sales Training Research Report by Sales Readiness Group


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