Have you ever gone to a club with a much more attractive friend, looking to meet someone but instead striking out all evening? Why is this? Quite simply: your friend makes people find you less attractive than you actually are.
As it turns out, we are not very good at making absolute judgments, relying instead on comparisons.
This is exemplified by the classic experiment involving only two buckets of water: one filled with lukewarm and the other with ice water. If you first place one hand in the cold water, and then place both hands in the lukewarm water, then the lukewarm water will feel extremely hot to the hand that was in the iced water.
This is the contrast-effect at work, and it’s the reason why you appear far less attractive than you truly are when standing next to your ultra-attractive friend.
The contrast-effect is also the reason discounts in business are successful. For example, we perceive a product that has been reduced from $100 to $70 to be better value than one that has always cost $70, even though the starting price plays no role in a product’s actual value.
Yet another instance in which we misjudge something’s value occurs when we perceive scarcity.
This phenomenon has been verified in one test involving cookies. In the experiment, subjects were divided into two groups: in one, each person received an entire box of cookies, and in the other, a mere two cookies.
They then rated the cookies. The subjects that had received only two rated them much more highly than the other group.
Businesses also take advantage of this lapse in our judgment by creating the feeling of scarcity, using phrases such as “today only” or “only while supplies last” in order to drive sales.
Luckily, we can circumvent these comparison and scarcity biases by assessing something’s value based solely on its costs and benefits. By doing so, you’ll make much better choices.
Do you find it difficult to remember the five items on the shopping list you composed only ten minutes ago, yet have no trouble at all remembering the intricate details of the plot of the movie you saw last week?
This is because we need information to form meaningful stories before it makes sense to us; conversely, we are repelled by abstract details.
We find this phenomenon strongly reflected in the media, where relevant facts take a back seat to entertaining narratives.
For example, if a car drives over a bridge that suddenly collapses, we’ll probably hear much more about the unlucky driver than about the mundane details of the bridge’s faulty construction. Juicy facts about the person attract more readers than abstract information about how the accident could have been prevented, and media outlets reflect this in their reporting.
In addition, we love exotic – and therefore exciting – stories. In fact, we are far more likely to believe exotic explanations to mundane ones, even though mundane explanations are more probable.
As an example, reflect on this headline for a moment: “A young man is stabbed and fatally injured.”
In your estimation, is the attacker more likely to be a middle-class American or a Russian immigrant who illegally imports combat knives?
Most people would place their bet on the latter, but this assessment contradicts the fact that there are a million times more middle-class Americans than Russian knife smugglers, and thus the overall probability of the perpetrator being American is far higher. Unfortunately, we are simply so attracted to enticing descriptions that we often overlook more probable explanations for the story.
This thinking error can be fatal in the medical field. For this reason, doctors are taught not to be seduced into thinking that symptoms might be caused by some exotic disease, and instead always investigate the most likely ailments first.
They follow the motto: “When you hear hoofbeats, don’t expect a zebra.” Even if a zebra would be far more exciting than a mere horse.
If something strange was happening right in front of you, like a gorilla running around, you’d notice, right? In fact, you probably wouldn’t if you were focusing on something else.
It turns out that our focus is very narrow, and we miss everything that occurs outside it.
Consider, for example, a Harvard study that demonstrated this illusion of attention: subjects watched a video of students passing basketballs back and forth, and were asked to count how many times the players in white T-shirts passed the ball. At the end, the subjects were asked if anything unusual caught their attention.
Half the viewers shook their heads, totally unaware that in the middle of the video someone dressed as a gorilla had walked into the room, pounded his chest, and then disappeared.
This is the reason we should never use cellphones while driving. Studies show that drivers’ attention is too overstretched to react to danger – just as slow, in fact, as when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In addition, what we focus on is influenced by outside factors: when presented with a long stream of information, we pay much more attention to the information that comes first or last at the expense of everything in the middle.
Consider this question: Who would you rather be stuck in an elevator with? Allan, who is smart, ambitious, good looking, critical and jealous? Or Ben, who is jealous, critical, good looking, ambitious and smart?
Most people choose Allan. Even though the descriptions are identical, we are fooled by the primacy effect, which causes us to focus on first impressions that then shape our overall assessments.
However, if our impressions were formed in the past, then the recency effect controls our attention: the more recently we received the information, the better we are at remembering it.
For example, if you listened to a speech a few weeks ago, then you’ll remember the final point better than either your first impression or the content sandwiched between.
In today’s world we face limitless choices about products and lifestyle. Be it finding the right wine or the best university, you are bombarded with options. For most people it’s difficult or even impossible to manage this cornucopia.
Indeed, a large selection leads to an inability to come to a decision, and we often just give up instead.
This paradox of choice was tested in one supermarket where researchers set up a stand with different jelly samples for people to try and then buy at a discount.
The experiment was conducted over two days, with 24 varieties of jelly on the first day, and only six on the second.
The results showed that they sold ten times more jelly on day two, indicating that too much choice inhibited customers’ ability to make a decision and that they thus opted to not buy anything.
A similar study on decisions made when picking out potential partners on online dating sites even showed that the stress of being presented with an overwhelming variety of potential partners causes the male brain to reduce the decision to a single criterion: physical attractiveness.
Furthermore, research has shown that decision-making can also be exhausting, resulting in decision fatigue.
This was tested by one psychologist who presented two groups with pairs of items; one group had to deliberate over which they preferred, while the other group simply wrote down what they thought about the items.
Immediately thereafter, they put their hand in ice-cold water for as long as possible. The first group could keep their hand submerged in the water for a much shorter amount of time than the second, thus indicating that their willpower was exhausted by this intensive decision-making.
So in order to circumvent these traps in decision-making, you should realize that the “perfect decision” is impossible, and instead learn to love a “good” choice, rather than striving for the “best” choice.
Check out my related post: Have you overestimated your abilities?