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Now for Something Completely Different

By Magnificent Publications, Inc.

When it comes to persuasion, Robert Cialdini has no illusions. That’s why everyone in publications should pay attention to his work, e.g., Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion. Now this, from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

It’s called the contrast principle, and it’s frighteningly simple. If two things are presented one after the other, and the second is different from the first, people tend to see the second as more different from the first than it actually is.

Automobile dealers use the contrast principle by waiting until the price for a new car has been negotiated before suggesting one option after another that might be added. In the wake of a fifteen-thousand-dollar deal, the hundred or so dollars required for a nicety like an FM radio seems almost trivial by comparison. The same will be true of the added expense of accessories like tinted windows, dual side-view mirrors, whitewall tires, or special trim… The trick is to bring up the extras independent of one another, so that each small price will seem petty when compared to the much larger price.

There are plenty of applications to the world of persuasive publications.

For example, advocates for a new public program will often compare its cost to existing budget items. They may be tempted to make that comparison to programs that cost about the same but are presumably wasteful or at least silly. (Example: “We propose only $3 million for this expansion of pre-K education. The state spends $2.8 million on paper clips and pens alone.”) More effective would be to compare the desired amount to a much larger budget item—even if it is not strictly speaking relevant to the new program—and put that larger amount first. (Example: “The state spends $277 million a year on its prison system. We are requesting only $3 million for pre-K education.”)


Further evidence for the case presented above comes from the noted statistician Amos Tversky (1937-1996), whose study at the Harvard Medical School asked physicians to consider survival rates following  lung cancer treatments.

  • When physicians were told that the one-month survival rate with surgery was 90%, then 84% s chose surgery and the remaining 16% chose radiation.
  • When they were told that surgery resulted in a 10% mortality rate in the first month, 50% chose surgery and 50% radiation.

In the short term – one month —  surgery is actually riskier than radiation.

(The facts above and much more can be found here. )

We encourage marketers and writers who want to help readers make better decisions to read Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) by Professor Tversky’s long-time collaborator, Daniel Kahneman, who dedicated the book to him.

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