The Contrast Principle and how much you’ll pay for anything


We as humans tend to key on contrast and judge value by the relationship of one thing to another. If we can find a comparable, we always do. The way Starbucks got us to buy $4 cups of coffee (er, you, anyway, since I have never bought a coffee a Starbucks, but I have bought a double chocolate cream frappucino) was to make the experience difficult to compare to Dunkin Donuts. Euro-style tables, funny names, funky music, soft lighting, all contributed to an ambiance sufficiently different to make the comparison difficult. Tough economic times, have made people more willing to see coffee as coffee and refuse to pay for the experience (that and, of course, the fact that the Starbucks experience has become mundane itself, just like Dunkin’ Donuts).

We all know that from personal experience, but I have been seeing it a lot more clearly since reading Dan Ariely’s fun book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and the interesting, though a bit more stodgy Robert Cialdini book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. So here’s where it gets interesting. Savvy marketers know that we judge value by contrast and relationship. So the Economist offers subscriptions for the following rates (or did when Ariely did his study):

  1. $59 for the online-only subscription.
  2. $125 for the print-only subscription.
  3. $125 for the print and online subscription combined.

What’s going on there? Why even bother to offer option 2? Simple. It isn’t clear which is the better deal between $59 for the online subscription or $125 for the print subscription, but there’s no question which is the better deal between the print-only and the print and online option. Because of that and because those two are obviously comparable — different offers at the same cost — we key in on those two options. When Ariely showed the offer to MBA students at MIT, only 16% went for the online-only subscription, none went for the print-only option and a whopping 84% signed on for the combo. The deal was too good to pass up. But, and this is where it gets really really interesting, what if you eliminate the print-only subscription? After all, not a single person wants it anyway, so it’s not really an important part of the offer, right? Well when he offered only two choices, the online version and the combo (options 1 and 3 in other words) to MBA students, with no “decoy” offer, 68% opted for the internet-only option. So in other words, by focusing the comparison on the $125 option, they shifted from a measly 32% willing to pony up $125 to a whopping 84%. That’s the power of contrast! We are just not wired as humans to think in absolutes, which is usually a good shortcut as historically, evolutionarily (and in most life-threatening situations) we have very few choices and choosing quickly has advantages. In the modern marketplace, though, it’s a different story.

Cialdini has all sorts of examples where the contrast principle is used to influence our decisions. Brunswick pool tables instructed salesmen to start by showing the most expensive pool tables “just to see what the high-end features are” and then bring people down the price ladder. Result: a big increase in the amount people were willing to spend because the mid-range tables now seemed cheap. Some clothing retailer figured out that if a man comes in to buy a suit, always sell the suit first and the accessories second. After making the big purchase, what’s another $20 for a tie? But if they choose the tie first, they’ll go for the $10 tie instead.

This is also why discounts, coupons, MSRPs on cars that nobody pays, and “$97 value, yours for only $27” work even if nobody in the history of humanity would consider paying $97 for the piece of junk that really isn’t even worth $27. Even though in our rational mind we know with certitude that the list prices are absurd and nobody pays them, they anchor us on high prices and we compare the sales price to the high price put in our mind because we are wired to compare. This is so subtle and so powerful that if you simply ask people what the last two digits of their social security number are, this will actually influence how much they are willing to pay for something later. Those with higher numbers are actually willing to pay more because the higher number is still stuck in their mind and that provides the mental anchor at that moment. In the absence of a meaningful comparison, they are simply comparing the last two numbers they have heard and that makes a price seem reasonable or unreasonable depending on what has become set as their anchor.

So as a consumer, you need to really think about what comparisons you make implicitly, without thinking about it. And as a merchant, of course, you need to think about what comparisons your customer is making.

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