Tag Archives: Big Picture

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:

The Top Ways For Avoiding Cognitive Biases: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 17

Last Monday I wrote that my cognitive bias series had come to an end. However, several of you emailed me asking for a more concise summary (as you’ll recall, the last post was over 3000 words). So, I thought I’d aggregate the most frequent suggestions of ways for avoiding cognitive biases. It’s in the same vein as a post in this series I don’t often link to: WRAP — An Acronym from Decisive.

Today, I’ve gone back through the post I wrote last week and categorized the different ways for avoiding the cognitive biases that I’ve listed. I’ll list the ways in descending order of their most frequent occurrence on the lists, along with the biases that they helped to counteract:

Alternatives (6): Sunk Cost Fallacy, Endowment Effect, Planning Fallacy, Framing Effect, Confirmation BiasThe Contrast Effect

Assumptions (5): Sunk Cost Fallacy, Framing Effect, Overconfidence Effect, Halo Effect, Functional Fixedness,

Data (5): Planning FallacyGambler’s Fallacy, Primacy/Recency Effect(s), Status Quo BiasThe Contrast Effect

Empathy (3): Endowment Effect, Framing Effect, Fundamental Attribution Error,

Big Picture (3): Loss Aversion, Fundamental Attribution ErrorThe Contrast Effect

Emotional (2): Loss Aversion, Endowment Effect,

Self-Awareness (2): Overconfidence Effect, Hindsight Bias,

Expectations (1): Loss Aversion,

As you might expect, assumptions plays a big part in our decision-making, so naturally, uncovering our assumptions (or recognizing them) is an important way for avoiding the traps of cognitive biases in decision-making. Similarly, it’s important to consider and/or develop alternatives. On an important related note, one of the most important things you’ll learn about negotiating is BATNA. This stands for: the Best Alternative to a Negotiation Agreement. Alternative. It’s also not surprising to see the frequency with which “data” appears, too. Data are a really important part of making a “cognitive bias”-free decision. I’ve written about the virtues of empathy, so I won’t review it.

Lastly, I wanted to highlight that “big picture” appeared on this list a couple of times. I was surprised that it only appeared a couple of times, but that could be a result of the way I was thinking (or my biases!) when I was writing these series. For instance, two of the categories here on this site are Perspective and Fresh Perspective. Meaning, I think it’s really important that we learn how to view things from a wider scope. “Big Picture” probably coud have fallen under “Alternatives,” but I believe there’s an important distinction. With alternatives, it’s still possible to only be considering things from a micro-level, but with the big picture, there’s a necessity for seeing things from the macro-level.

PS: Happy Canada Day!

~

If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Could Washington, DC, Use a Little More Selfless Service?

During a trip I took earlier this year, I happened to pick up a USAToday. I don’t often read the USAToday, but that has more to do with the way that I aggregate articles. As I was reading, I came across an op-ed about Tulsi Gabbard, the newest member of the House of Representatives from Hawai’i. In the context of what had just happened with the drama of the fiscal cliff, there were some important points that I want to highlight:

The problem in Washington today is that legislators almost always act based on how they think their actions will help or hurt their political careers. An antidote to our epidemic of partisanship can be found in the “great tradition of conciliation” in which American statesmen from Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy put the good of the country above the interests of self, party, or region. This tradition could be revived, if only we would heed the words of George Washington, who warned against the “mischiefs of the spirit of party,” or of Patrick Henry, who exclaimed, “I am not a Virginian but an American.”

It could also be revived by an infusion of the Gita’s principle of selfless service. If Democrats and Republicans could learn to cast their votes without first (and foremost) calculating the costs and benefits to their personal careers, Capitol Hill would start to look a less like a battlefield between rival clans and more like the arena of compromise and conciliation our Founders intended it to be.

Selfless service.

How often do we hear that phrase used in the context of politics?

The irony of this op-ed about selfless service is that a day later, I heard this same point echoed on conservative talk radio. Dennis Praeger and his call-in guests were opining that politicians weren’t concerned about the big picture — they were focused on what was going to get them elected and keep them elected. How interesting, eh? While I don’t know that the author of the op-ed is liberal, the fact that he’s writing about diversity in Congress (and about a Democratic House Member, in particular) might lead one to believe that he might be. There’s also the fact that he wrote a rather pointed post for CNN around election day last year. So, it’s safe to assume that back in January of this year, we had people on both sides of the ideological aisle talking about how important it is for politicians in America to start thinking about what’s good for the country rather than their district, party, or reelection chances.

While I’m totally on-board with a bigger picture perspective, I would wonder how to reconcile not keeping the interests of my district in mind when voting. Isn’t that how people get elected in the first place? I’m going to represent you in Washington… I’m going to represent what’s important for our town when I get to DC… How could one turn one’s back on one’s district?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it’s a conversation worth having.

The Law of Flotation was not Discovered by Contemplating the Sinking of Things

“… but by contemplating the floating of things which floated naturally, and then intelligently asking why they did so.”

The title of this post and the line above come courtesy of a passage from a book called The Wisdom of Thomas Troward. If I’m being honest, this book is not where I first came across this bit of wisdom. In fact, I first heard it in a movie I saw a couple of years ago called, “You Can Heal Your Life.” For those familiar with those 5 words, yes, there’s a book by that name by Louise Hay. The movie is also by Louise Hay (about her life and her work). If you’ve never heard of Louise Hay, I’d encourage you to check her out — there’s a good chance you might find her work useful. Millions of other people have.

Let’s get back to that quote, though.

On its face, the quote might not make much sense, so I’ll put it in context. Before we used steel for boats, wood was the common element. Why was wood used? Well — quite simply — it didn’t sink. Let’s think about that for a moment. People used wood to make their boats because it wouldn’t sink — not because it floated — because it wouldn’t sink. That might seem like an inconsequential detail, but when the frame of the problem is “don’t sink,” it alters the number of solutions that are available. I should say, it alters the number of solutions that will be readily available to you. Why? Because we’re so focused on solving the problem of “don’t sink,” we might not see the solution that lies in the principles of flotation (see: displacement).

And that’s just it, until someone took a step back and looked at the problem from the perspective of flotation, discovering the principles of displacement was never going to be possible.

So — what is it in your life that you’re so focused on that won’t let you see the forest for the trees? Or, in what ways are you trying not to sink when you should be focused on how to float?

Loss Aversion and the Big Picture: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 2

I think I’m going to make a habit of posting something new to my series on biases in judgment and decision-making every Monday. Last Monday, we looked at sunk costs. Today, we’re going to look at loss aversion.

As much as I can, I’m trying to write about the different biases by themselves. Sunk costs are closely associated with loss aversion, so I could have included it in the first post. Similarly, the endowment effect is closely associated with loss aversion, so I could have wrote about it here. Learning about the biases one at a time may make it easier to focus on that bias for that week. So, without further adieu: loss aversion.

Loss aversion is the idea that we’d rather avoid losses than reap rewards. Put more simply: we’d prefer to not lose something than acquire something. Like we did with the sunk cost fallacy, let’s look at some examples of loss aversion to give us a better understanding of this bias. The implication of loss aversion is that someone who loses $100 or $1000 will lose more satisfaction (or be unhappier) than someone who gains $100 or $1000 will gain satisfaction (or be happier). If we think about a continuum where both of the people in the above example start at 0, the person who loses money will have an higher absolute number (with regard to their satisfaction) than the other person. This is a rather basic example, so let’s look at something a little juicier: golf.

In golf, the difference between winning and losing is sometimes one stroke (or one putt). A short excerpt from Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow:

Every stroke counts in golf, and in professional golf every stroke counts a lot. Failing to make par is a loss, but missing a birdies putt is a foregone gain, not a loss. Pope and Schweitzer reasoned from loss aversion that players would try a little harder when putting for par (to avoid a bogey) than when putting for a birdie. They analyzed more than 2.5 million putts in exquisite detail to test that prediction.

They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, the players were more successful when putting for par than for a birdie. The difference in their rate of success when going for par (to avoid a bogey) or for a birdie was 3.6%. This difference is not trivial. Tiger Woods was one of the “participants” in their study. If in his best years Tiger Woods had managed to putt as well for birdies as he did for par, his average tournament score would have improved by one stroke and his earnings by almost $1 million per season. [Emphasis added]

That’s an incredible statistic. With the only difference between putting for par and putting for birdie the fact that one would “lose” a stroke and professional golfers are 3.6% better at putting for par? Wow! As the excerpt said, that accounted for $1 million per season for Tiger Woods in his best years.

Ways for Avoiding Loss Aversion

As with the sunk cost fallacy, one of the most important ways to avoid loss aversion is to recognize it. That is, to know that humans have a tendency for loss aversion is an important first step in not falling into the trap of loss aversion.

1) What’s the big picture?

In our example of golf, that might mean knowing where you are in relation to the other players your competing with in the tournament (rather than where your ball is relation to the hole and what specific stroke you’re about to hit). In business, one might examine a decision about one business unit in relation to the entire company (rather than looking myopically at the one business unit).

2) Am I afraid of losing something?

This may seem like an obvious solution, but it’s pretty important. If before making a decision you can think to yourself (or have your team ask itself), “am I afraid to lose something here?” You might find that you are and it could serve to help you or your company avoid falling into the trap of loss aversion.

3) Do you really expect to never lose anything — ever?

Loss is inevitable. Sometimes, you won’t make that par putt (or that birdie putt). Sometimes, when you negotiate a deal, you won’t get the best deal. Sometimes, the decision to sell that business unit might result in losses somewhere else. If you can come to grips with the fact that every decision you make won’t be perfect and that sometimes you will lose, you may begin to shift your expectations about loss.