Contrast Makes You More Persuasive

Influence is a book about how to be more persuasive, written by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., who admits in the introduction that he wanted to research how and why he became such a patsy. My previous post  and this one showed you some tricks for becoming more persuasive. Today I’ll add one more.

According to Cialdini, the “Contrast Principle” is a powerful persuasive tool. The Contrast Principle says that we notice differences between things, not absolute measures. We may not be able to tell that the chair weighs 50 pounds, but we can easily tell that it’s much heavier than the chair next to it.

When we say something is old, expensive, or attractive, we’re actually saying that it’s more or less old, expensive, or attractive than something we’ve seen before, or our ideal version of an object (which may or may not exist.) It’s hard to compare groups of objects; we compare best when we have only two things to contrast. At least we think we do.

If you’re a fan of HGTV, you’ll see the Contrast Principle at work on any given Property Brothers episode. Cunning Drew takes the unsuspecting couple to house number 1 for the sole purpose of setting the baseline for their expectations. He does it in one of two ways: he’ll either show the couple what their budget will actually purchase (usually, an unsatisfactory dive.) Or he’ll show them their dream house with all their desired features – and a price tag that’s hugely over budget.

Either way, he’s setting up the couple to buy one of the houses he believes is the right choice. Watch this technique in action the next time you look for something with the help of a salesman. He’ll usually show you a low-price, low-quality product first. Then he’ll take you over to a much better product at a price point that’s still within your budget (but perhaps more than you wanted to spend.) The Contrast Principle will make you think the second item is a must-have bargain, based on all the extra quality or added features you get.

Realtors are masters of this technique; they often show a very expensive house before showing you one in your price range; by comparison, the second house will seem even less expensive than it is. It works with almost anything; picking up a slightly lighter object will seem much, much easier after lifting something really heavy. It’s not rational, but it works (for the salesman.)

It works in social comparisons too, unfortunately. If the first candidate you interview for a job blows the interview, the second candidate will be rated higher than he deserves simply because of the Contrast Principle. The same thing applies when we’re choosing mates or evaluating employees – if there’s a significant enough difference in attractiveness or performance, the first person makes the next in line seem much better or worse than she actually is. That’s why judging in artistic sports like figure skating or gymnastics is seldom objective – the Contrast Principle always plays a role in the outcome.

So how can you make this work for you? If you need your boss to approve a budget, give her two versions: the one with everything you could possibly want, and the modest version with what you really need. By comparison, your second budget will seem very reasonable. You’ve got a great chance of getting it approved.

If you want someone to take an office space that you know they’ll think is too small, show them a tiny, dismal, dirty space first. They’ll jump on the small space you’re offering with no argument.

It goes without saying that you should only use this power for good. Think of it as a way to help people make the right decision with less angst. You’ll also be more aware of this technique when it’s being used on you, allowing you to make better buying decisions – or at least more rational ones.


1 thought on “Contrast Makes You More Persuasive

  1. […] that he wanted to research how and why he became such a patsy. My previous post, this one, and this one showed you some tricks for becoming more persuasive. Today I’ll add a few […]


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