What is Automation Bias and Why Should Businesses Care?

Written By
André Moses
Writen By:
André Moses
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Has your GPS ever led you astray? We’ve all been there before. You blindly follow automated directions with a false sense of confidence, despite navigating roads in an area you’ve never visited before.

Next thing you know your SUV is sitting in the middle of a crammed farmer’s market. You’re bewildered and apologetic while people yell at you to move your vehicle.

How did you get here?

The answer is automation bias.

Humans are weird. Haven’t we seen enough Sci-Fi horror films to know we can’t trust automation? The machines will turn on us when we least expect it!

Yet we rely on automation all the time, often without a second thought.

What is automation bias?

Automation bias is a type of cognitive bias — and a relatively new term. As people use automated processes on their computers and phones, or even invite it into their home with smart devices, a new cognitive bias is born.

In a nutshell, automation bias is our tendency to accept and even prefer suggestions from technology, despite the fact that automation is well known to lead us astray.

Why does it happen?

So why do we tend to trust automation technology over our own judgements and recommendations from our peers? The short answer:

We’re all just lazy.

When making a decision, most people choose an option that requires the least amount of thinking on their end. It’s the same reason sons across the globe ask Siri what to buy their mum for her birthday, instead of coming up with a heartfelt gift (you know who you are).

Another reason for automation bias is that we tend to think machines are way smarter than us. Which they are. Even the most basic tools have analytical capabilities far beyond what you or your next door neighbour could process. So even if automation tools might occasionally lead you astray, it makes sense to trust them in general.

Lastly, people just have a tendency to trust machines when working together on a task. Think about the car GPS again. It sends you down a back alley you would never venture down otherwise.

You’re pretty sure you can just go up to the next major intersection and take a left. But what do you know? Is there a map inside your brain? Maybe it’s a secret shortcut! So you take the risk.

What does all this have to do with marketing?

Okay, so far we’ve learned that automation bias can mess up people’s lives. It makes you get lost on a back road, or convinces you to buy knitting needles for your poor arthritic mother.

But it’s not all bad. Automation helps people make the right choices quite often, which is why we rely on it so much. Marketers can also take advantage of this cognitive bias to influence their audiences and encourage them to buy.

One great example of this in action is Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists. Every Monday morning, 248 million Spotify users receive a new playlist of top music based on the listening trends of other users.

If everyone else loves these songs, why shouldn’t you? And more importantly, if you stop using Spotify to listen to music, how are you going to figure out what music is hip and trendy?

For an advertising example, think about Google Shopping Ads. They’re a convenient, automated way for people to search for, compare, and evaluate products. With ad extensions, they can also include reviews:

Say you’re shopping for a new pair of trainers. You have two options to think about before making a decision: (1) Rely on Google’s suggestions and reviews, or (2) Call all your friends for recommendations, ask them to give their own trainers a star rating, then analyse your findings.

Of course you’re going to rely on whatever Google’s automated algorithm recommends to make a decision. That’s the power of automation bias, and it’s something advertisers can take advantage of to influence purchase decisions.

How can you harness the power of automation bias?

There are lots of ways you can take advantage of automation bias to improve your marketing strategy. But by far the biggest opportunity is with recommendation engines.

Especially if you work in ecommerce, recommendation engines can help you recommend products using automation, so people trust the machine behind it.

If you want to see some examples, just head to Amazon. Their site is covered in product suggestions from their recommendation engine:

And let’s not forget the biggest recommendation engine that influences nearly everyone’s lives:


People know how complex and well-managed Google’s algorithms are. If Google’s showing your content in search results, people are going to trust it.

Like we mentioned earlier, Google Ads are a great way to take advantage of automation bias on the search engine. Getting your content featured in rich snippets is another way. Better yet, optimise for voice search results. That way the next time someone asks their Alexa for recommendations, your business will be the first words on her lips.

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