The contrast effect refers to the phenomenon that occurs when people’s perception of something is unintentionally influenced by the presence of something that contrasts it.
What is the contrast effect?
The contrast effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when the presence of a contrasting factor influences someone’s perception of something.
In other words, when we compare two things, the contrast effect distorts our perception of that thing by enhancing the differences between them.
The effect applies to various traits, ranging from physical qualities, like color or taste, to more abstract attributes, like price and attractiveness. The effect often leads to a distorted judgment of whatever is being compared, making it seem more or less appealing than it actually is.
For example, suppose that a hiring manager is considering two job candidates.
Candidate 1 has relevant experience and is highly qualified, but Candidate 2 has even more experience and qualifications than the first candidate. Therefore, even though Candidate 1 might be an excellent fit for the position, the hiring manager might view the first candidate as less impressive because they pale compared to Candidate 2.
What is contrast effect bias?
The contrast effect bias is a type of unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias). It occurs when someone’s perception of something is influenced by a previous or simultaneous exposure to something else that is noticeably different.
While the contrast effect is a perceptual phenomenon that occurs naturally, the contrast effect bias is the specific bias that can cause someone to misjudge or misperceive things.
In other words, the contrast effect bias occurs when someone’s judgment is influenced by the contrast effect to the extent that it becomes biased.
Positive contrast effect VS negative contrast effect
There are two main types of contrast effect: positive and negative. Learn more about each one below.
Positive contrast effect
The positive contrast effect is when something is viewed as better than it usually would be because it is compared to something worse.
For example, suppose you are shopping for a new pair of shoes. You find two models that you like, but one is significantly more expensive than the other. By comparing the two, you might perceive the cheaper pair of shoes as a better value than you would if you had not considered the pricier option.
This happens because the contrast with the more expensive model makes the cheaper one seem like a better deal for you. This is closely related to the halo effect, where the presence of a contrasting factor overshadows the other traits of the thing being compared.
Negative contrast effect
The negative contrast effect is when something is viewed as being worse than it usually would be because it is compared to something better.
This type of contrast effect is often seen in the workplace, where it has detrimental effects.
For example, look at the example with job candidates mentioned above. Candidate 1 might seem less impressive when compared to Candidate 2, even though they are both highly qualified candidates. This is because the contrast with the more impressive Candidate 2 makes Candidate 1 seem less impressive by comparison, thus, creating a negative contrast effect.
This is closely related to recency bias, as the manager gives more weight to the most recent contrasting factor they encountered, even if it is not the most relevant.
Examples of the contrast effect:
- A drink tastes sweeter if you drink it after a sour or bitter drink.
- A product on sale appears to be a better deal for you because the original price tag is still visible.
- A standard car looks old and unimpressive because it is parked next to an expensive luxury car.
- A book cover appears to me more captivating than usual because it is placed next to a book with a bland cover.
- A room seems brighter if you enter it from a dark room compared to if you enter it from a well-lit room.
- A person might seem more outgoing if they are surrounded by shy people compared to if they were surrounded by outgoing people.
The impact of the contrast effect
The contrast effect can have a profound impact on people’s judgments and decisions, both personally and professionally. For instance, it can affect how we perceive ourselves, our relationships with others, and our consumer choices.
Here is a list of examples of some of the effects it can have:
- Inaccurate comparisons: It can cause people to make inaccurate comparisons, where they may perceive something as better or worse than it actually is due to the presence of a contrasting element.
- Self-perception: It can impact people’s self-perception. For example, if a person is surrounded by people who are highly successful, the individual may view themselves as less accomplished by comparison to those around them.
- Unintentional bias: It can lead to unintentional bias. For example, suppose a manager evaluates two job candidates and considers the first mediocre. In that case, the manager might unintentionally perceive the second candidate as more impressive, even if the second candidate is only slightly more qualified than the first candidate.
- Consumer behavior: It can play a role in consumer behavior. For example, if someone is shopping for a new car and test drives a luxury model, they may perceive a mid-range model as less appealing than they would have otherwise.