Discover the psychological science of conversion

Episode 1: The ROI-magic of “Autonomy”


Are you a conversion specialist? Are you good at getting shiploads of customers to buy, use and promote products? Awesome! Now how can you grow to become an even star? How about this?

“Converting customers = converting brains”

The more you understand your customers’ brain, the more you will outperform any other specialist. And you’re lucky, since digital analytics (or ‘big data’ if you like), online ab- & multivariate testing and RTD have created a World Wide Walhalla for (wannabe) psychologists, we can finally exploit all our knowledge about our irrational brain. Testing it in a realistic setting, while measuring unlimited numbers of influencing factors. Psychology meets digital data -> our knowledge of the brain explodes -> a firework of ROI-magic happens.

Since the start of Online Dialogue, we’ve explored and tested many ‘online persuasion techniques’, which we are now combining in the Wheel of Persuasion. Let’s pick one as a preview of our Conversion Conference Chicago presentation: A really strong – but often ignored – example is ‘Autonomy’. Autonomy is easily explained by the following short story (McCullagh, 2005):

A short story on autonomy

“Once there was a man. Kids would come to play on his lawn to have fun. The man began to be annoyed by this, and strangely enough… he paid them a dollar to come play on his lawn again. The kids happily took the dollar and played on his lawn. The next day, the man told the kids that he did not have enough money, so he could only give them 50 cents to come play on his lawn. On the third day, he told them he could only give them a nickel to come play on his lawn. The kids were displeased with this, and told the man he could forget that, and that they would not play on his lawn for such a cheap reward.”

What happened? The man took away the kids’ autonomy (in their desire to play on his lawn) by connecting their behavior to an external reward. Their behavior became extrinsically motivated. By removing the extrinsic reward, the behavior stopped…”


Autonomy is our innate and universal need to be causal agents of our own lives. Our perception of our autonomy influences our behavior: A high level of perceived autonomy comes with feelings of certainty and reduced stress. Autonomy increases our ‘intrinsic motivation’ and thereby the likelihood of persistent (buying) behavior. In essence:

“We are more likely to act, when we are in control”

For example: Studies looking at choice have found that increasing our autonomy by introducing options and choices, increases our intrinsic motivation to the related activities. On the other hand, taking away our autonomy by introducing in example external rewards and deadlines, undermines our intrinsic motivation, we grow less (intrinsic) interest in it and are less likely to act.

Self-determination theory

Autonomy is one of the three innate needs within the Self Determination Theory (SDT). The other 2 innate needs are the need for competence and the need for relatedness. SDT is a macro theory of human motivation and personality, explaining people’s innate psychological needs and inherent growth tendencies. It explores the motivation behind the choices that people make when there are no external influencers or interferences. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined.

 The Wheel of Persuasion


Autonomy in “the Wheel of Persuasion”

Autonomy is part of the ‘Need & Motivations’ category in the Wheel of Persuasion. Right now we described close to 50 online persuasion techniques in the Wheel, (ultimately we will fill the 5 dimensions and 17 categories of “the Wheel” with more than 200 techniques). You can use ‘Autonomy’ and all other persuasion techniques from the Wheel to boost your online conversion and other kpi’s… Join us for our presentation in Chicago to see how we applied these persuasion techniquesin real client cases and learn how you could use these techniques yourselves.

Online Proof of Autonomy

Case: “Van der Valk” –hotel booking websites

So how can autonomy create magic? Here’s an example: Do you think it matters whether you indicate that some contact fields are required, or…that some are optional? We ( tested this on the websites of ‘Van der Valk Hotels’ (a primarily Dutch hotel chain with >1500 rooms booked/week). And guess what… By stressing ‘optional fields’ instead of ‘required’ (and thus reinforcing their prospects autonomy)Van der Valkraised the number of online bookingsby 24,7% (>99% confidence after 14 days of testing)…


Online Persuasion tips:

So what can we learn from psychological insights related to Autonomy?

√         Prevent mandatory fields and checkboxes

√         Allow users to move freely (back and forward) through your site and funnel

√         Introduce choices (even trivial ones)

√         Do not use external rewards and deadlines (if you want your customers to repeatedly choose for your offer)

√         If you want to change the usual choice of your customers, introduce an external reward for their current choice and than take it away again…

What’s next?

Autonomy is one of hundreds of online persuasion techniques. Start exploring insights from exhilarating scientific fields like ‘behavioral economics’, ‘neuromarketing’, et cetera, and start using the World Wide Walhalla to become a “cerebral conversionist” yourself. And than… more and more ROI-magic will happen 🙂

About the Authors

ton-wesseling-vTon Wesseling moved from html cut and paste-er, through the log file business and the first analytics tools, into website optimization. He has been improving that last hobby for more than 10 years now and has learned a lot in the process.

He is skilled at getting the best insights from complex situations and is known as barefoot presenter, skilled DJ and chief optimization officer at award winning Online Dialogue.



Coming from a family of psychologists, Bart Schutz became a… psychologist. So did his wife.  After 2500+ usability tests he found out that A/B-testing is the holy grail of dialogue optimization. That one can test with a live audience what psychology professors tested in a lab. He has over 100 persuasion techniques in his wheel of persuasion, which made him the Chief Persuasion Officer at award winning Online Dialogue.

8 thoughts on “Discover the psychological science of conversion

  1. So true. A big part of conversion optimization is about finding the right persuasion method. We, at Marketizator ( have relied a lot on Cialdini’s principles of persuasion. They seem to work very well when translated into the online environment.

  2. So true. A big part of conversion optimization is about finding the right persuasion method. We, at Marketizator ( have relied a lot on Cialdini’s principles of persuasion. They seem to work very well when translated into the online environment.

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