Is “A” Really the Best Option or is it Just that It’s Better Than “B”: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 18

The other day, someone was talking to me about my series on biases in judgment and decision-making and it made me realize that I was missing a rather important bias — the contrast effect! I’m not sure how this one slipped through the cracks, but I’m glad to be able to write about it for you today.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote something for this series, so let me refresh your memory. Each week, I took a cognitive bias and explained it. I provided an example and then I offered some ways for mitigating that cognitive bias in your own life. So, without further adieu, the contrast effect.

What’s the contrast effect? Well, as with many of the biases, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an effect that occurs because of a comparison. That is, people are more likely to perceive differences that are bigger or smaller because of something they’ve seen first. This is something that is used in sales — all — the — time. If you’re shopping for a new car, the salesperson may show a series of cars that are way out of your price range and then show you one that’s just a little out of your price range. After having seen so many cars that are way out of your price range, the one that’s just a little out of your price range won’t seem that far out of your price range. The contrast effect.

That’s not to pick on folks who sell cars, it can even happen with smaller purchases, shoes, for instances. Let’s say you’re looking for a particular kind of footwear. The salesperson may show you a bunch of shoes that don’t quite fit your needs and happen to be priced rather cheaply. Then, the salesperson shows you a shoe that does fit your needs, but is quite a bit more expensive. As you’ve seen all these shoes that aren’t what you need and now you’ve finally come to one that meets you’re needs, you may ignore the price and buy the shoes.

One of my favourite examples of the contrast effect comes from Dan Ariely‘s book, Predictably Irrational:

One day while browsing the World Wide Web (obviously for work-not just wasting time), I stumbled on the following ad, on the Web site of a magazine, the Economist.

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I read these offers one at a time. The first offer-the Internet subscription for $59 seemed reasonable. The second option-the $125 print subscription-seemed a bit expensive, but still reasonable.

But then I read the third option: a print and Internet subscription for $125. I read it twice before my eye ran back to the previous options. Who would want to buy the print option alone, I wondered, when both the Internet and the print subscriptions were offered for the same price? Now, the print- only option may have been a typographical error, but I suspect that the clever people at the Economist‘s London offices (and they are clever-and quite mischievous in a British sort of way) were actually manipulating me. I am pretty certain that they wanted me to skip the Internet- only option (which they assumed would be my choice, since I was reading the advertisement on the Web) and jump to the more expensive option: Internet and print.

But how could they manipulate me? I suspect it’s because the Economist‘s marketing wizards (and I could just picture them in their school ties and blazers) knew something important about human behavior: humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six- cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four- cylinder model.)

In the case of the Economist, I may not have known whether the Internet- only subscription at $59 was a better deal than the print- only option at $125. But I certainly knew that the print and-Internet option for $125 was better than the print- only option at $125. In fact, you could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Internet subscription is free! “It’s a bloody steal-go for it, governor!” I could almost hear them shout from the riverbanks of the Thames. And I have to admit; if I had been inclined to subscribe I probably would have taken the package deal myself. (Later, when I tested the offer on a large number of participants, the vast majority preferred the Internet- and- print deal.)

Before we movie into some of the ways for avoiding the Contrast Effect, I wanted to make it clear that sales isn’t the only place where this bias can creep up on us. Another good example is in evaluations (be they interviewing job candidates or marking term papers). If one doesn’t have a rubric by which one is scoring candidates (or papers), it can be easy to slip into the contrast effect: “Well, that candidate was much better than the last candidate, let’s put them through to the next round.” It could be that the latter candidate, while better than the first, still doesn’t meet your criteria to make it the next round, so putting them through would be wasting valuable resources — both yours and theirs.

Ways for Avoiding the Contrast Effect

1) Standardized Evaluation

In our most recent case involving interview candidates or term papers, creating a rubric or standardized method of evaluation prior to examining candidates/papers will go a long way to help one avoid falling into the trap of the contrast effect. This method could also be applied when it comes to shopping (i.e. sales). For instance, let’s say you’re looking for a car. Prior to arriving at the dealership, you could create a table for how you’re going to evaluate the cars you view while at the dealership. In this way, you can guard against the salesperson knowingly (or unknowingly) showing you cars at either end of the spectrum before showing you the cars you might actually purchase.

2) Are There Other Options?

Often times, when we’re succumbing to the contrast effect, we’re looking at option A versus option B. This is why it’s so important to have some sort of standardized evaluation (see #1), but short of a standardized evaluation, it’s important to remember that almost never are those two options your only two options. “Should I get this car or that car?” Well actually, you have another option — neither of those cars. And another option, you could consider buying a bike or maybe taking public transportation. Whenever you find yourself faced with a decision between two options, it can be useful to consider other options, just in case you’ve fallen into the trap of the contrast effect.

Note: the images in this post are all examples of the contrast effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

What if We Learned That Objects Aren’t Meant to Be Owned?

Now that I’ve got a little one to look after, I spend a lot of time watching him interact with the world around him. At this point in his life, that means he’s interacting with just about anything he can get his hands on. Sometimes, I wish it were just his toys and then that got me thinking… his toys. What if we taught our young ones that the things they use aren’t actually theirs? What if we taught our young ones that the things they use aren’t meant to be possessed?

Part of these thoughts stem from watching other little ones interact with their toys. They can be quite possessive about what’s theirs and what they’ll allow different people to touch and/or play with. So, I was thinking, what if, from a very early age, we instilled within our young ones a sense that these things that they’re playing with aren’t theirs. Instead, we helped them understand that they were simply using these things.

There are certainly implications for them when they’re young, assuming that this is something that we could teach them. For instance, let’s say that they lose a toy. Instead of having a “melt down” over losing this toy, they just realize that they toy is gone. Since it wasn’t theirs to begin with, there’s no need to ‘mourn’ its loss. A similar thing could play out when our little ones are playing with other little ones. There’s often differing levels of development in play-groups, so some kids may physically take toys from other kids. This could lead to the proverbial “melt down,” but what if the kid who was about to “melt down,” didn’t, and it was because they learned that the toy was never meant to be theirs forever.

As I write this, I realize how difficult this may be to teach to someone at a very, very young age, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to try.

Let’s talk about how this might affect adulthood.

The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of renouncing materialism, which immediately made me think of Hinduism and Sannyasa. Of course, that’s a bit beyond what I had in mind when I was imagining our little ones learning about possessing objects. In fact, I was thinking more about Buddhism and Upādāna, which has to do with the idea of “grasping.” So, I wonder… if we were raised with the idea that objects aren’t meant to be owned/possessed, how different would our lives be? Maybe the whole idea of materialism fades away. Maybe we don’t spend much of our early adulthood (and for some, middle and late adulthood) acquiring things. Maybe we focus more time on enjoying ourselves and less time wishing we had a better car, house, or some other object that we deem desirable.

The Science of Us: Hank Green’s Crash Course in Anatomy and Physiology

As a professor, it’s probably not surprising that I like to learn. Even though I’ve completed a few degrees, I still try to make time to learn new things — daily. In fact, I’ve even shared these learning experiences. There was the Harvard University’s course on Justice with Professor Michael Sandel (I also went through one of his books chapter by chapter), there was my series on cognitive biases, there was MRUniversity’s course in economics, and before all of that, there was Crash Course.

This was probably one of the first video series that I came across that I felt like I actually learned (and remembered!) something 20 minutes after the video finished. I first went through John Green’s (the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars) crash course in world history. Later that year, John’s brother, Hank, did a crash course in ecology. John also did a crash course in literature. I didn’t realize it, but Hank also went on to do a crash course in psychology.

There are more crash courses than what I’ve just shared, but those are just a few to give you a taste. Anyway, the reason I’m writing today’s post is because I just learned that Hank is doing a crash course in anatomy and physiology.

Anatomy and physiology are two subjects that I’ve always wished that I spent more time with. In fact, they’re two subjects that I think we all should have spent some time with when we were younger. I used to have the idea that it seemed like a good idea if as part of our basic education, we learned anatomy and physiology and not as some form of “punishment” (as I understand some people don’t necessarily like these subjects), but because anatomy and physiology is/are us. Anatomy and physiology are the reason that you’re alive right now. This seems an appropriate reason to try and understand it.

More specifically, ‘anatomy is the study of the structure and relationships between body parts and physiology is the science of how those parts come together to function.’ Hank calls it, “The Science of Us.”

I’m not going into this expecting to remember every minute detail, but I am expecting that I will have a better understanding of how some of the parts of the body come together to function to make me, me! As an example, I was speaking with a massage therapist the other day and she told me that massage therapists often have to translate what their clients tell them. For instance, a client will often come in complaining that they want to work on their shoulder, while reaching for the area immediately adjacent to their neck. As it turns out, our shoulder is actually far closer to the place where our arm connects to our body. The place that this person was pointing to was, in fact, their neck.

“What’s Your Background:” Cultural Differences Between Canada and the US

Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, it was fairly common to meet people of different ethnicities and cultures. As a kid, when you’re first meeting someone — at least when I was growing up — one of the first questions (after learning someone’s name) was probably some iteration of: “What’s Your Background?”

Until I moved to mid-Michigan for university after high school, I didn’t realize that asking this question may have been a norm where I grew up and not anywhere else. I still remember when I first asked someone about their “background” when I arrived at university. They looked at me funny and so then I rattled off some possible answers, Irish, Italian, English, etc. The response I received was a stern: “I’m American.” I responded by saying I assumed that, but that I was also curious to know about their cultural heritage. The person reaffirmed that they were American.

And thus was the eye-opening experience for me — ingrained in a Canadian’s identity is that they aren’t necessarily from Canada or that they didn’t necessarily start in Canada. Canadians know that there was something before Canada.

At this point, I should clarify that it’s really not fair to make sweeping generalizations about all Americans or all Canadians. It’s probably not even fair to make generalizations about Americans from mid-Michigan or Canadians from the Greater Toronto Area. While I might hypothesize that something along the lines of what I just said in the above paragraph, my point in sharing this today is to highlight to you that there may be some “blind spots” that you’re unaware of, if you remain nestled in your own culture.

In fact, you may not even have to leave the country to notice your “blind spots.” Simply by taking up a new activity or popping into a different community, you may find that the way you think about something is vastly different from the way someone else thinks about that same thing. You may also find that your group’s “norms” are borderline blasphemous to another group (sidenote: while asking about someone’s background as a kid was normal, I learned that continuing to do this after moving to mid-Michigan was seen as ‘rude.’)

Best Posts of Jeremiah Stanghini’s Blog in 2014

If you read last year’s “best of” post, you’ll notice that there’s some overlap with this year’s “best of” post. However, some of the posts that didn’t overlap surprised me. Similar to last year, at first, I’m inclined to do a best of 2014 and a best of all-time, but after looking at the statistics, the best of 2014 and the best of all-time are pretty close, so it won’t be all that interesting to do separate posts. As a result, I decided to just do the one post of the best posts of 2014. I also considered picking a bunch of articles and calling them “underrated” because they hadn’t garnered the views that some of the other posts had. I might still do that, but not in the next few weeks.

Before revealing the top 6 posts along with an excerpt, there is one thing to keep in mind. On this site, I specifically chose a theme where folks wouldn’t have to click a link to view the whole post (only to share or comment because those links are on the post’s page). As a result, the statistics for the most popular posts are sure to be skewed because people may have read a certain post more than another, but without them clicking the link for the post, there’s no way (that I know of) for me to know. On top of that, the theme I’ve chosen here allows the viewer to scroll (all the way to the first post!) What does that mean? When you’re on the homepage, you can continue to scroll down and more posts will load… all the way ’til you get to the first post. And in looking at the statistics of the top posts, it’s clear that “scrolling down” is far and away the most popular “post” on this site (this was true last year and the year before and will probably be true for as long as the site’s theme remains the same). With that in mind, here they are with an excerpt for each:

The Official Final Jeopardy Spelling Rules [UPDATED]

If you know me, you know that I’m really good at finding things on the Internet. After doing a couple of cursory google searches (Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Jeopardy Rules), I was surprised that I couldn’t find them. Sometimes, the site that hosts a document like this doesn’t do a good job of using keywords. So, I thought I’d poke around the official Jeopardy site — nothing.

After some more derivations of “Rules of Jeopardy,” I was beginning to think that maybe the rules aren’t online. I thought that maybe the contestants were handed a paper copy that they signed before going on the show and that document wasn’t online. Having never been a contestant on Jeopardy (though I’d like to be some time!) I couldn’t confirm whether this was true. However, given that it’s a game show, I’m sure they signed something before going on the show. Regardless, I didn’t have access to that document.

Sheldon Cooper Presents “Fun With Flags”: A YouTube Series of Podcasts

The other day I happened to be eating lunch and staring off out the window. While that may not seem important, it is. Most of the time, I like to be reading or doing something, while I’m eating. I completely understand that it’s probably better to not do this, but I often can’t help myself. Anyway, as I was sitting and justeating, an idea came to me. (Don’t you find that ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them?) The idea, as the title of this post suggests, a web series from one of The Big Bang Theory’s main cast members: Sheldon Cooper.

Advancing America’s Public Transportation System: High-Speed Rail in the USA

When it was first announced that the US was going to work on , I was very excited! Growing up in the , I am very familiar with the value of public transportation. I often rode a bus to and from school. As I matured and wanted to explore downtown with my friends, we’d ride the  to get there from the suburban area we lived. Beyond that, when I needed to make trips between Detroit and Toronto, I would ride the  between Toronto and Windsor instead of taking the 45 minute flight. Public transportation is a great way, in my opinion, to feel better about reducing one’s .

Chapter 2 – Fines vs. Fees: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.

In The End, Everything Will Be OK – If It’s Not OK, It’s Not Yet The End

It’s no secret that I like quotes. Since converting my Facebook profile to a Facebook page, I’ve gotten into the habit of sharing a “quote of the day.” If my calculations are correct, I’ve been sharing quotes of the day for over 80 days now. As you’ll notice that I also have a quotes category, I’ve shared a number of quotes here on this site, too. And if I think back to the days of AIM (AOL Instant Manager), I often had quotes as my “away” message. And even before then, I remember really liking quotes in high school and in elementary (or grade) school. So, like I said, it’s no secret that I like quotes.

Chapter 3 – Fairness and Inequality: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!

This is Not a New Year’s Resolution: You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere

It’s been some time since my last post. In fact, it’s been more than a quarter of a year and nearly a third of a year. There are a confluence of reasons for that, but I’ll get to that later. The thing I wanted to highlight in today’s post is that the important thing is — starting.

Since I’ve been away from writing for so long, I started to think that my first post back had to be stellar. The insights contained within had to literally blow your socks off. In adding this unnecessary pressure, I noticed that when I had some time to write a post, I would procrastinate and do something else instead. Why? I felt like I didn’t have anything that good to say after having been away for that long. With each opportunity to sit down and write something, the pressure mounted and mounted, until I came to the realization that I was adding this pressure to myself. And it was unnecessary. I could simply let the pressure fall away and write.

As the annual arbitrary calendar event just passed, I thought this was the perfect time to share this with you. Why? A number of you will choose to take up New Year’s Resolutions (I strongly suggest a New Year’s Challenge, instead!) and a number of you will probably decide that it’s time to write that bestseller you’ve always wanted to. Having not gotten into the practice of writing everyday, there’s a good chance that staring at the white screen and blinking cursor will cause some anxiety. So what I’m telling you: You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere.

There are lots of places you could start and maybe that’s what’s causing the stress.

If you need a nudge, then, might I suggest starting with the thing that you know the most about? Your paragraphs and ordering of your thoughts don’t have to be perfect, but just getting your fingers (or hand, if you prefer the “old-fashioned way”) moving is important.

~

Getting back to what I mentioned in the first paragraph (extended absence)… I didn’t expect things to get so hectic this past Fall. I moved again (still in the same city, though), the academic semester started (and ended), I broke my shoulder-blade in somewhat of a freak accident, and the little person that calls me Dadda started walking. As most parents will tell you, when that happens, it’s a whole new ballgame. Nonetheless, I think I’ve got a handle on things and that I’ll be able to write with greater frequency than I have in the last 4 months. As the annual arbitrary calendar event just passed, it’s a good time to check the “top posts of 2014″ for this site, so look for those in the coming days.

The Confirmation Bias in Action: “When I Looked Closer, It’s Obvious I’m Right”

Decision-making biases are challenging, to say the least. Often times, we don’t know that they’re affecting our ability to make logical and rational decisions. The first step in combating these biases is knowing what they are. The next step would then be identifying when we use these biases. On that note, I came across a funny comic that perfectly illustrated the confirmation bias in action.

The confirmation bias is just dripping from this comic. It might not always be easy to see when we’re operating under the confirmation bias, but “luckily,” we might have an easier time of seeing it in someone else.

A couple of years ago, I offered some other ways for combating the confirmation bias (once you know that it’s a thing). One of these ways is a two-pronged approach: seeking out contradictory information. It may sound easy to go out and look for information that doesn’t conform to your opinion, but it can actually be quite difficult. The difficulty is amplified by the fact that much of our social media sites are doing their best to show us content that conforms to our beliefs and opinions (in part because that’s what they think we want). As a result, it *might* be easier to seek out people with contradictory opinions.

When you’re trying to combat the confirmation bias by being exposed to different information, seeking out a person with a contradictory opinion is usually superior to seeking out contradictory information. Why? Because the person can engage with you and refute the things you might mutter under your breath as you’re reading the contradictory information. Essentially, you’d be engaging in the Socratic method.

If seeking out someone with a contradictory opinion sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to find someone who’s aware that you’re trying to combat your own confirmation bias. That is, you don’t want your first experience in this regard to be with someone who’s going to screech at you that your ideas are crazy.