How contrast can skew our perception

The contrast principle affects the way we see judge or evaluate things when they are compared with another.  If we compare a beach ball and a tennis ball, we will perceive the beach ball to be big and the tennis ball small.  But when we compare the beach ball with the moon, we think of the beach ball as small.  In other words, our judgement and perception is relative, not absolute.

The contrast principle is used extensively in sales. For example, I worked for a company which sold stationary to schools.  To increase the order size, we used the contrast principle by saying that other schools (social proof) were buying 20 or thirty of a certain product.  We then asked, would you like to take the same or would 5 or 10 be better for you?  Usually they would choose 5 or 10 (if you were lucky then you may get an order for 30).  However, if the contrast principle was not used and the salesperson asked “how many do you want?”, the customer would usually buy 1 or 2.  The contrast between the suggested 30 and the possible 5 was so great that it made the 5 seems small.  But if the salesperson suggested 5 without the higher contrast then 5 would seem too many.

Robert Cialdini also gives the popular example of the hot/cold contrast.  A person sits with one hand in a bucket of hot water and the other in a bucket of ice cold water.  They then place both hands in to a single bucket of luke-warm water.  The result is that the person whose hand has been in the cold water perceives the new bucket to contain hot water, whereas the person whose hand has been in the hot water feels the water to be cold.  Have you ever had a very warm shower before jumping in to a public swimming pool?  Usually, this makes the pool feel colder then if you had just jumped straight in.

So, how does the contrast principle relate to personal development?  Well, one great way to make yourself value you what you have is to watch the news.  Now, I don’t like to watch the news without a conscious, system 2 thinking process to ensure that I am watching it with the contrast principle firmly in my mind.  There is so much bad news out there that without a positive reason for watching, it is very easy to get depressed and upset at the things which are happening in the world.  The contrast principle can help you to realise that the things which make you angry, stressed and frustrated are really just a drop in the ocean.  Also, by thinking proactively and using your internal locus of control, you can think of ways to improve the things you don’t like about the world.  That’s the difference between world leaders and the rest of the population, some people despair, some people deny, others don’t care, leaders decide and do.  Remember as Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”.

Further Reading: Dr Robert B Cialdini: Influence: The psychology of persuasion

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