Distinction Bias: A Psychological Phenomenon Of Decision Making

This psychological bias predisposes us to be constantly comparing, looking for differences.

Distinction bias

We all consider ourselves rational people, who like to think coldly when making a certain decision.

However, to what extent are we really capable of objectively evaluating the benefits of choosing one path or the other?

The distinction bias is a very common phenomenon that allows us to understand how people behave in our decision-making, in addition to justifying it depending on the context in which we have made it. Let’s dive in below.

What is distinction bias?

The distinction bias is the tendency to overestimate the effect of small quantitative differences when comparing different options, whether they are materialized in products, services or simply personal decisions. This trend appears or not depending on whether the comparison of these options is made jointly or, on the contrary, there is no decision and you are living or having something that cannot be modified.

The term was first described in 2004 thanks to the research of Christopher L. Hsee and Jiao Zhang. These researchers observed that people, when we have to choose between a certain product within a wide range of possibilities, we tend to look for and find every difference between them, no matter how small and unimportant they may be first hand. So, depending on those little details, our preferences are inclined towards one or another product, service or decision.

During this process we overestimate the degree of happiness that the decision we are making will bring us. We fear that by opting for the less suitable or less better, we will create a high degree of discomfort or discomfort, and we also fear that we will regret it in the long term.

However, if we do not have the possibility to choose between several options, as is often the case in life itself, it seems as if we willingly conform. This means that, when we cannot compare an event with others nor do we have the decision-making capacity, the possible differences between other options that we have not been able to enjoy do not seem to matter to us, feeling satisfied with what we already have.

Compare mode and experience mode

To facilitate the understanding of the distinction bias, it is necessary to explain the two cognitive phenomena that it implies: the comparison mode and the experience mode.

People enter comparison mode when, having several options, we start looking for all kinds of differences between them to make sure we make the right decision.

Instead, we find ourselves in experience mode when there is no other option, we have touched a certain thing that we cannot change and we have to settle for it, but willingly.

To exemplify both the bias and these two modes, we will look at the following case of a man and an apple-based gift:

We have in front of us a man who is sitting in front of a table, and we ask him the following question: would you like to eat an apple? The man, seeing that a fruit is offered to him for free, and without expecting it, responds affirmatively. So we give him the fruit, which is a few days old but is still good, and the man begins to eat it very happily.

Now let’s imagine this same situation, only that instead of offering him an apple we offer him two, and we tell him that he can only choose one of them. It is then that we present both pieces of fruit: the same apple from the previous case, still good but with some days, and another apple which looks much fresher and more appetizing. After evaluating both pieces of fruit, the man opts for the freshest apple.

In this second situation, if we asked the man if he believed that he would have been happier choosing the apple that did not look fresh, he would surely tell us no, that it would not make much sense to have taken the oldest apple and could choose the best one. .

In the situation where there was only one apple, the person would have entered the experiential mode, since they do not have to choose between several options. The apple is simply presented to her and invited to eat it. You don’t have to compare it to other better or worse ones.

In contrast, in the second situation, the man has entered the comparison mode. Despite the fact that both apples were edible, with the same nutritional value, the same breed of vegetable and a long etcetera, the simple fact that one was younger than the other has made the person perceive it as the best of both. options. By choosing the best of the apples that could be presented to him, he feels happier than he thinks he would be if he had chosen the one that, for him, should be the worst.

Real life examples

Marketing works on the basis of the distinction bias. If people did not choose to buy what we consider to be the best, most of us would choose to buy the cheapest, regardless of such supposedly banal aspects as the color of the product’s packaging, the prestige of the brand behind it, all the extras which supposedly includes …

A clear example of this we have in the world of electronics. Let’s say we want to buy a television and we find ourselves in a store specializing in this type of appliance. In theory, all the televisions that have been placed next to each other in the store serve the same purpose: watching television channels. However, the prices of these products vary a lot, and the extras of each model are very different from each other.

This is when the time comes to choose the new TV and we don’t decide which one to choose. Logic would tell us to take the cheapest one, since, after all, it will be used for the same, regardless of its extras or price. However, we are opting for the most expensive ones, those that look like the best on the market and that, in our mind, differ greatly from those that are only worth a little less.

Another example, this much more mundane, we have with the world of food. In the supermarkets there are sections where you will find both private label cookies and those with a prestigious name behind them. A certain brand of cocoa cookies with a cream interior is well known, which seem to be the favorites of many people. However, these same cookies exist in their low cost format, at half the price, with a very similar flavor.

Although both cookies are practically the same, they taste the same, they have the same nutritional values ​​(few, since cookies are not healthy food) and opting for the cheapest product would be the most logical option, the most expensive brand, twice price, it is the most consumed. The reason this is done is that, in addition to buying expensive products is seen as synonymous with power, all the marketing behind and the presentation of these cookies helps the more expensive brand.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hsee, CK (1998). Less is better: When low-value options are valued more highly than high-value options. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. 11 (2): 107–121. doi: 10.1002 / (SICI) 1099-0771 (199806) 11: 2 <107 :: AID-BDM292> 3.0.CO; 2-Y
  • Hsee, CK; Leclerc, F. (1998). Will products look more attractive when presented separately or together ?. The Journal of Consumer Research. 25 (2): 175–186. doi: 10.1086 / 209534
  • Hsee, CK; Zhang, J. (2004). Distinction bias: Misprediction and mischoice due to joint evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 86 (5): 680–695. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.484.9171

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