Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Compare and contrast

February 24th, 2011

Color contrastWe’d like to think that we judge every case on its own merits. Sure, the surroundings may appear to make a difference, but we take them into account. When we look at something that differs from its peers, we see it for what it is, regardless of its setting. Right?

We don’t, of course. But what’s interesting – and rather alarming – is the degree to which we don’t.

Some examples are less momentous than others. For instance, a 1980 study asked male university students to rate the physical attractiveness of a woman in a photo. Those students who had just watched “Charlie’s Angels” gave her significantly lower ratings than students who had watched something else.

That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. What startled me is that the same effect occurs with non-visual contrasts and much more important decision-making.

In 1976, Albert Pepitone and Mark DiNubile asked participants in their study to read short summaries of crimes and recommend a punishment for each. When the participants read about a homicide case after judging another homicide case, they recommended an average of 22 years in jail. The same homicide case after judging an assault case brought a recommendation of 33 years imprisonment. Similarly, an assault judged after another assault drew an average of eight years in prison, but the same assault after judging a homicide case drew only five. Each type of crime affected the participants’ perceptions of the seriousness of the other.

ContrastThis effect is part of why the anchoring effect works, as well as the door-in-the-face technique. We do respond to surroundings and preceding events when we’re making decisions, especially when we don’t think about the context in which the decision is made.

You can see how this might be important when doing your own world changing. It’s likely to be more effective to set up your volunteer-created information booth among others of a similar type than to place it in a larger venue made up entirely of glossy, professional kiosks. Whether you’re looking for donations, volunteers, members or pledges, your organization will be judged by how it compares with its peers.

Which means that I should encourage you to read stuffy, boring blogs before you read this one… but life is too short to read bad blogs. I’ll take my chances.

2 comments on 'Compare and contrast'

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  1. Allan McKeown

    24 Feb 11 at 10:53 pm

    it works! I did find a very boring blog to read and then I re-read yours! Even more impressive the second time around!!


    Carol Reply:

    *laughing* Um… thanks?


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