6/18/13 - the decoy effect

In today's selection -- the decoy effect. Suppose, according to psychologist Daniel Ariely, someone is given a choice between two vacations -- a week in either Paris and Rome at the same price with free breakfast each day -- where they are equally likely to choose either one. Then further suppose that a third choice is added -- Rome at the same price without free breakfast -- then that same person will become much more likely to select the option of Rome with the free breakfast. This is because relativity helps us make decisions in life -- he or she now has a better basis for assessing the value of the Rome package: "it's the same price plus I get free breakfast so it must be a good deal." This is known as the "decoy effect," and knowledgeable psychologists and marketers realize it extends to most choices in life -- from buying a house to selecting someone to date:

"I asked [25 MIT students] to pair the 30 photographs of MIT men and the 30 of women by physical attractiveness (matching the men with other men, and the women with other women). That is, I had them pair the 'Brad Pitts' and the 'George Clooneys' of MIT, as well as the 'Woody Allens' and the 'Danny DeVitos' (sorry, Woody and Danny). Out of these 30 pairs, I selected the six pairs -- three female pairs and three male pairs -- that my students seemed to agree were most alike.

"Now, like Dr. Frankenstein himself, I set about giving these faces my special treatment. Using Photoshop, I mutated the pictures just a bit, creating a slightly but noticeably less attractive version of each of them. I found that just the slightest movement of the nose threw off the symmetry. Using another tool, I enlarged one eye, eliminated some of the hair, and added traces of acne. ...

"For each of the 12 photographs, in fact, I now had a regular version as well as an inferior (-) decoy version.

"It was now time for the main part of the experiment. I took all the sets of pictures and made my way over to the student union. Approaching one student after another, I asked each to participate. When the students agreed, I handed them a sheet with three pictures. Some of them had the regular picture (A), the decoy of that picture (-A), and the other regular picture (B). Others had the regular picture (B), the decoy of that picture (-B), and the other regular picture (A). ... After selecting a sheet with either male or female pictures, according to their preferences, I asked the students to circle the people they would pick to go on a date with, if they had a choice. ...

"What was my motive in all this? Simply to determine if the existence of the distorted picture (-A or -B) would push my participants to choose the similar but undistorted picture. In other words, would a slightly less attractive George Clooney (-A) push the participants to choose the perfect George Clooney over the perfect Brad Pitt?

"There were no pictures of Brad Pitt or George Clooney in my experiment, of course. Pictures (A) and (B) showed ordinary students. ... Would the existence of a less perfect person (-A or -B) push people to choose the perfect one (A or B), simply because the decoy option served as a point of comparison?

"It did. Whenever I handed out a sheet that had a regular picture, its inferior version, and another regular picture, the participants said they would prefer to date the 'regular' person -- the one who was similar, but clearly superior, to the distorted version -- over the other, undistorted person on the sheet. This was not just a close call -- it happened 75 percent of the time (out of a sample of 600). ...

"Let's take a look at the decoy effect in a completely different situation. What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming singles event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial features), but is slightly less attractive (-you).

"Why? Because the folks you want to attract will have a hard time evaluating you with no comparables around. However, if you are compared with a '-you,' the decoy friend will do a lot to make you look better, not just in comparison with the decoy but also in general, and in comparison with all the other people around. It may sound irrational (and I can't guarantee this), but the chances are good that you will get some extra attention. Of course, don't just stop at looks. If great conversation will win the day, be sure to pick a friend for the singles event who can't match your smooth delivery and rapier wit. By comparison, you'll sound great. ...

"Relativity helps us make decisions in life."


Dan Ariely


Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2009 by Dan Ariely


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