Be Careful Of Who You Compare Yourself Against

There is little doubt that people inherently have difficulty dealing with both accurate and absolute judgments. In fact the whole basis for this Art Of Marketing & eCommerce Series stems from the fact that people are, to a very large degree, unable to remain unbiased and accurate in their thinking. An Absolute Judgment is any judgment about a single stimulus, when you are only looking, viewing, and inspecting one single thing. The Contrast Effect is our inability to spot when we forget or confuse the difference between an Absolute Judgment and a Comparative Judgment. A Comparative Judgment is any judgment about whether there is a difference between two or more stimuli, obviously more of a comparison.

For example, as an Absolute Judgment Shaquille O’neal is relatively tall at 7’1”. However, due to the Contrast Effect and when standing next to 7’6” Yao Ming, your Comparative Judgment would cause you to believe that Shaquille O’Neal is in a sense “short”. Now if you didn’t know either NBA star and weren’t given their height in this text, and solely based your judgment off of that picture, than you would certainly say Shaquille is much shorter than the other gentlemen. You may even assume he could be below average height as you’re given no real reference to use in the room they’re standing.

We can even consider our own personal appearances for instances of the Contrast Effect. Between commercials for gyms and fitness equipment, subscriptions to health magazines and programs, and obviously cosmetic products of all sorts, people cannot help but do Comparative Judgments when critiquing themselves. We see fit, healthy, and beautiful people at the gym, yoga class, in magazines and on television. When we stare at ourselves in the mirror, rarely do we ever make Absolute Judgments about ourselves. We compare ourselves to the success we see around us that others have accomplished or been gifted with. We follow in other peoples footsteps falsely believing we’re comparing apples to apples and that their success can be accomplished in a similar way. Unknowingly and often with great consequences we look at ourselves and make Comparative Judgments believing we’re making Absolute Judgments.

As an Absolute Judgment most people are attractive and very few fall in the range of “ugly”, just like very few fall in the range of “beautiful” (if that could be defined). We are all relatively attractive, the mere fact humans procreate at the rate we do proves that. But when we’re online, reading magazines, looking at billboards and ads, watching television or movies… we’re shown the most attractive people mostly because their image sells better (Dove however has attempted to prove or exhibit otherwise). So when all you see every day is the imagery of perfection, or beauty, or fitness, or whatever… well that’s the mark most to everyone would like to hit and so compare themselves to that when judging their progress.

Typically I would add links here to prove that point… but everyone well knows the extent some people are willing to go to in order to achieve their goal or idea of physical perfection. Sometimes that crosses the railroad tracks into crazy town and if you’d care to venture and search through those tough neighborhoods have at it. But body modifications, surgeries, implants, reductions, and on and on and on are abound. Though on that note, there is one “interesting” link to add here: Maxwell Maltz – Psycho-Cybernetics. He was a Plastic Surgeon turned Psychologist. He couldn’t understand why after countless patients having their dreams come true of permanently changing their physical appearance and image couldn’t remain happy afterwards. He wondered why they always needed more “work” done and where that drive to push towards perfections came from. So he left his career as a Surgeon and became a Psychologist to study exactly that: How can happiness be achieved and kept? He’s believed to be one of the first “Self-Help” gurus.  

Part 2 of this series about Illusionary Perspectives describes this unique problem a bit better. But the main point to take away is simply that: You can want to be as fast a runner as Usain Bolt, you can attempt to train just like him, but chances are largely stacked against you in actually succeeding. He is the fastest recorded human being to have ever lived. It’s a little hard to match that. Literally… 1 in 7.1 billion for current living people and 1 in 108 billion (Reference)  for all people who have ever lived. Now maybe a few in the past were faster and never recorded.. But still you get the idea. Be careful what and who you compare yourself to, and realize that other people’s successes (or gifts) are often uniquely their own. Appreciation is often far safer than emulation in these instances.

Now these example have proven the point well enough but the daily real-world problems that evolve from the Contrast Effect for business owners and managers are both a bit more impactful and difficult to spot. We often feel inclined or have intuitions and act based off of those assumptions made. These are mental fallacies, cognitive missteps… though the Contrast Effect falls into these same categories, it is really nothing more than a mere common misconception.

Let’s say you’re starting a new marketing campaign which will cost $50,000 for the year. You’ve been looking at one other experimental advertising option outside of this larger strategy for a long time now but never quite made the move because it was less certain and costs $2,000. Compared to the overall cost of the new $50,000 marketing campaign, an additional $2,000  doesn’t seem like much so you decide to give it a try and add it to your overall strategy. Now nothing has changed in this scenario save that you’re simply spending more money. Why does this experimental advertising option now seem viable when it didn’t before? Because your Comparative Judgment was potent and masked itself as an Absolute Judgment allowing the Contrast Effect to alter your opinion. It still costs $2,000, it’s still experimental, and most importantly, it’s still uncertain and risky. Having spent $50,000 elsewhere doesn’t change those facts.

Businesses also often offer discounts and reduced prices on their products. Sales occur on nearly every product imaginable all the time. But studies have shown that the same dollar amount in savings is viewed as being worth less (comparatively) when the products overall price increases. Would you wait 10 minutes to save $10 on a $100 grocery bill? Would you wait 10 minutes to save $10 on a $1,000 bill for new clothes? Now understandably, the savings are ranging from 10% to 1%. But 10 minutes is still 10 minutes and $10 is still $10. That doesn’t change and overall cost shouldn’t really matter. If you’re willing to save $10 in 10 min in one instance, why not in another? Most would be willing to save on the grocery bill while few would wait around to save money buying clothes. 

Continuing on that note, the entirety of the discount industry would fail if it wasn’t for the Contrast Effect. A product that has had its price reduced from $200 to $175 seems a better value than a product that has always remained $200. However, the original price of a product should not play a role in decision making for purchases. The only fact that matters is the products current price. A product is never “expensive” or “cheap”, it just is what it is at that time. Don’t compare historic price ranges and don’t assume changes in the future, there are no highs and there are no lows. The current acceptable cost of something, regardless of what it is, is really nothing more than the perceived value by the customer at that time. Just because a product has been reduced in price means nothing. The price could still be too high or too low, it all depends on what the person making the purchase, and the overall market, believes the value to be. 

In the end it’s important to keep in mind how far reaching the Contrast Effect actually is. Your perception may determine that a neutral gray color is lighter or darker when set next to a darker or lighter gray color even though the natural gray color remained the same. Cognitively people will appear more or less attractive when compared next to a less or more attractive person even though the persons appearance has not changed. Performance wise people will work harder and faster if they believe they will be rewarded, the speed of delivery for this reward also dramatically affects their performance as well. During job interviews, interviewers have few cues to help make a decision because little is known about the interviewee, so you compare them to previous candidates or other employees. One of the biggest ways the Contrast Effect plays a part in business, and also to the uneasiness of employees, is during performance evaluations. Ideally an employee should be judged on their own ability, work ethic, and overall performance. However, as most of us well know performance evaluations are at times incredibly biased and skewed. One single exceptional and stellar employee can make the rest look like lazy clock-watching laggards. Conversely, an extremely slothful shirker of work can make the rest look like employees of the month even though that might be far from the truth.

The purpose of this piece focused on cognitive Contrast Effects, and for that the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from it’s negative affects is to be ever aware of the difference between Absolute and Comparative Judgments. When you are considering something, weighing its value, determining its worth… in essence when you are judging and scrutinizing anything, make sure you know when it is appropriate to judge something based on its own individual merits and when you can judge something based off of comparing it to something else. And if you are going to do a Comparative Judgment, make sure the comparison is fair. Don’t compare apples to oranges.