Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

How to use a red herring

February 3rd, 2011

Imagine that you’ve been thinking about buying a new DVD player. You now see an ad for a week-long sale offering a very good DVD player for only $120 – 50% off the retail price. However, your computer speakers recently stopped working and you won’t know until tomorrow whether they’re still under warranty. If they’re not, you’ll have to pay $90 to replace them.

The next day, you learn that you’ll have to replace the speakers yourself. Do you decide to buy the DVD player during the sale?

Yes, this is rather an odd question. Bear with me here.

Anthony Bastardi and Eldar Shafir did some interesting experiments in which they asked study participants several versions of this question and got some thought-provoking results:

  • When the question stated up front that the reader would have to pay $90 to replace the computer speakers, 91% of participants said they’d buy the DVD player anyway.
  • When it was phrased as it was above (with a delay before learning that one had to replace the speakers), only 75% chose to buy it.
  • When the participants were told about the DVD player deal but the speaker situation was left unresolved, most of them chose to wait to find out whether they had to pay for the speakers (they did) before making a decision. Including those who didn’t wait before choosing, only 55% chose to buy the DVD player on sale.

Trying to decideWhen you really think about this, it’s pretty strange. Tell me up front that I’ll have an additional expense this week, and it doesn’t matter. Make me wait a bit before finding out that I’ll have exactly the same additional expense, and suddenly it makes me less likely to buy something else. What the…?

According to Bastardi and Shafir, what’s going on here is that when we wait for information before making a decision, we assume that that information must be important – even if it really isn’t relevant to the decision. As they point out, this quirk can be used against us:

“Salespeople, for example, can set up apparent uncertainties, only to resolve them with what appears to be excellent news. Thus, a salesman may propose to go check whether the price of a car includes the attractive CD player. His efforts may lead you to infer that this information matters to the decision, and having found yourself mildly interested in the answer, the good news that the player is included ought to bring you closer to being the proud owner of a new car.”

Naturally, I urge you to use this knowledge for good. If someone is dithering about making a donation to your cause, it will probably be more effective to say, “Let me check whether donors receive any special gifts… hmmm… oh yes, it looks as though anyone who donates more than $50 gets a stuffed bear” rather than “But you’d get a stuffed bear!”

It’s obviously too late for you to decide whether it’s worth spending a few minutes reading this post. But I assure you, had you dithered while you waited to learn more about its quality, you would have made the right choice.

2 comments on 'How to use a red herring'

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  1. M

    3 Feb 11 at 7:34 pm

    I like the word dither.


  2. Lizzette Bugg

    14 Jun 11 at 7:46 pm

    I likewise conceive hence , perfectly indited post! .


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