Life is a sum of all your choices. ~ Albert Camus
When I ask you if you would like an apple, you may say “Yes.” Because you feel that an apple would make you happy. So I place an apple before you and you begin to eat it. And you are happy.
But what if I were to place two apples on the table -- one was the one you would have have happily eaten and the other which is slightly fresher looking.
You will choose the fresher apple and eat it and be happy.
That all makes sense. But, if I asked you, “would you have enjoyed eating that other apple,” you would likely say "No.” Even though in our alternate no-choice reality you were perfectly happy with the apple.
This is a simplistic view of “Distinction Bias.” Distinction Bias says that when we compare things directly, we tend to overestimate the importance of their differences. Yes, the fresher apple was better – but it didn’t make the less-fresh apple unenjoyable.
If there were five apples on the table, you might take a few minutes to examine each apple so that you would be sure you had the best one. Each minute you spend laboring over that decision of mostly-like things is likely waste.
Distinction bias causes us to over-examine and over-value the differences between things as we scrutinize them. Psychologists and economists note that we have two ways of examining the suitability of something. The first is through single evaluation – with one apple, we ask questions like “will this apple taste good?” The other is through joint evaluation – we compare two things and ask questions like “will this apple taste better than that apple?”
That second question is very different than the first. We switch into joint evaluation mode when we have choices and we take the exercising of choice very seriously – even when those choices have very limited impact. We overestimate that impact.
In my house, I have a 32” HDTV which is the perfect size for where we have it. In its space, it is big, has a great display, and is a fine television. The other day I went to Costco and there was this HUGE HDTV, a smaller one, a smaller one than that, and then a really really tiny one.
In cavernous Costco, the tiny display almost seemed comic. Why would anyone buy such a small TV? When I approached it, the impossibly small set was a 32”. The same one that’s in my house, in fact.
When seen in the Costco context, when subjected to joint evaluation, the perfectly suitable 32” option was somehow unsuitable. In a home context, with single evaluation, the television is wonderful.
Today, on Facebook, I was struck by this A/B test apparently put to me by Mark “So sue me” Zuckerburg himself. He wanted to know which place I liked better – Alyssa Lewis’ Seattle Pie Company (which makes some of the most excellent pies I’ve ever had, amazing crusts, wonderful fresh fillings) and Brian Voltaggio’s VOLT restaurant in Fredrick, Maryland (which creates some of the most incredible experimental American cuisine I’ve ever had).
So if you want a pie or dessert or even an awesome chicken pie – I’m sending you straight to Seattle Pie Company. If you want a cool creative dinner that will surprise and delight you – I’m sending you to VOLT. (They do an avacado mousse that is unbelievable). I have been to both several times and have never (not once) been disappointed.
Facebook wants a database of preferences to build up so they can market stuff to people more effectively. The problem is they’ve created an A / B test that makes sense to them (two restaurants Facebook knew I enjoyed) and actively encourages false distinctions from distinction bias by making me jointly evaluate two things that are actually dissimilar or even complimentary. Ranking Seattle Pie Company against VOLT is like ranking oxygen against drinking water. The results can only be misleading.
In business and in our personal lives, we want to optimize for something. Sometimes it is cost, other times it might be effort, still others it might be profitability, screen size, or capacity. When we are given a choice, we want to optimize the choice. That is natural and even a good thing. But sometimes we go a little overboard, getting stuck in analysis paralysis and taking way too long to make a decision – negotiating our way through only marginal distinctions.
Choice infographic by Will Lion.
Indignant Screenshot of Facebook by Me.