Exploring the unseen influence of contrast effect bias
By Remy Meraz • February 27, 2023
Bias can be a powerful influence in our lives, yet it often goes unnoticed and unexplored. We may be unaware of the ways in which our biases can lead us to favor particular perspectives, lifestyles, or beliefs over others. Exploring our own bias and learning to recognize it in ourselves and others can be an important step toward creating a more equitable and inclusive society.
In this blog post, we will explore the different types of this bias and provide real-life examples of the contrast effect to illustrate how this bias can influence our judgment. Additionally, we will offer suggestions on avoiding contrast bias in the workplace and during the hiring process, so that we can make more objective and fair decisions. Whether you are a manager, HR professional, or just looking to set an example and minimize the impact of biases in your own life, understanding the contrast effect and how to mitigate it can be a valuable tool.
What is the contrast effect?
Contrast effect refers to the phenomenon in which our perception of a particular object, event, or person is altered based on comparisons we make to other things, events, or people. It occurs when our judgment of a stimulus is influenced by the presence of another stimulus, with the result being that the perceived characteristics of the original stimulus are enhanced or diminished based on the characteristics of the comparison stimulus.
The history of contrast effect psychology
The concept of contrast effect has its roots in the field of psychology, dating back to the early 20th century. One of the earliest references to the contrast effect was made by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1930s. Lewin discovered that people's perceptions of brightness, size, and weight tend to be influenced by the comparison stimulus and this became the basis for his work on contrast effects.
In the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists began to study the contrast effect in more detail and developed a number of theories to explain the phenomenon. The most widely accepted theory of contrast effects is the Adaptation Level Theory, which states that our perception of a stimulus is influenced by the average level of stimulation that we have previously experienced. This theory suggests that when we are presented with a comparison stimulus, our perception of the original stimulus is adjusted based on the level of stimulation delivered by the comparison.
In recent years, research on contrast effects has expanded to include areas such as decision-making, marketing, and the hiring process. This has led to a greater understanding of how contrast effects can influence our judgments and has resulted in the development of strategies for minimizing the impact of these biases. Today, the concept of contrast effect continues to be an important area of study in psychology, with ongoing research to further evaluate and mitigate its positive and negative effects.
Positive contrast effects
The positive contrast effect refers to a situation in which the comparison stimulus leads to an increase in the perceived attributes of the original stimulus. In other words, the presence of a comparison stimulus enhances our perception of the original stimulus.
An example of when a positive contrast effect occurs would be if you were to try two different types of coffee, one after the other. If the first coffee is of lower quality, the second coffee, even if it is of average quality, will taste better and will seem to have a more desirable flavor compared to the first cup.
This is because our perception of the second coffee's flavor has been positively influenced by the comparison to the "worse", lower-quality coffee that was tasted first. In this situation, the first coffee acted as the comparison stimulus and led to an increase in the perceived attributes of the second coffee.
Negative contrast effects
The term "negative contrast effect" describes a situation in which the comparative stimulus causes a reduction in the features of the initial stimulus that are observed. For example, let's say someone goes on a series of dates with people who they find to be less attractive or interesting than they had hoped. If they then meet someone who they initially find to be attractive and interesting, their perception of this person may be negatively influenced by their previous negative experiences with less desirable dates. The negative experiences with the previous dates act as a comparison stimulus and lead to a decrease in the perceived attributes of the new person. As a result, the person may perceive the new person as worse than they actually are.
This phenomenon is often observed in marketing as well, where advertisements for one product may have less of an impact when followed by ads for a superior product. By taking advantage of the negative contrast effect, companies can use comparative advertising to boost their likeability factor and brand recognition and ultimately increase sales. Additionally, this effect can be used in combination with positive reinforcement techniques to improve customer satisfaction. For example, if a customer is given discounts or other rewards after purchasing a product, they are likely to have an increased sense of satisfaction with their purchase and be more likely to repurchase in the future.
By understanding how the negative contrast effect works, businesses can use these factors to their advantage when creating marketing campaigns and customer loyalty programs. Individuals can also use this concept to evaluate their purchases, make better-informed decisions, and ensure they are getting the best value for their money.
Examples of the contrast effect in everyday life
In order to fully understand the unconscious bias that occurs when we compare things, it is useful to look at some examples of the factors leading to the contrast effect and how this phenomenon can manifest itself in daily life.
Shopping for new clothes
Contrast effect bias can have a significant impact on someone's shopping experience for new clothes. If a shopper tries on a smaller size garment and it fits well, they may perceive the next size up to be larger even if it is the same size as the smaller garment. This is because the smaller size has acted as the comparison stimulus and led to a worse perception of the next size.
Similarly, If a shopper tries on a high-quality garment, like an expensive tie or a new suit, it may cause them to perceive other garments as cheaper or lower quality in comparison. This can happen because the high-quality garment compared to the cheaper one can lead to a decrease in the perceived quality of other garments.
Deciding what to eat for dinner
All too often, couples ended up in the dreaded "dinner spiral", going back and forth trying to pick a restaurant or meal without reaching a consensus. When people compare two things that they have seen side by side, they will automatically think one is better than the other, even if objectively speaking there may not be a large difference between them. It's easy to become overwhelmed by choice and end up in a cycle of trying to find the perfect option when it doesn’t really exist.
Another example of the positive contrast effect at the dinner table is when people taste-test different dishes. If the first dish is under-salted, then the second dish will taste saltier in comparison and may be more appealing. This bias can cause people to forget about their true preferences and sway towards the last item they tasted, instead of considering two things objectively.
Examples of contrast effect in the workplace
Hiring managers and business leaders need to be aware of the contrast effect when making decisions in the workplace, such as hiring and promotion decisions. Let's look at a few ways that contrast bias can creep into your job.
When a manager compares an employee's achievements to that of a former employee, contrast bias can emerge, resulting in an unduly favorable or negative appraisal of the present employee. For example, if the manager previously rated a great employee, the differences in the present employee's work may be perceived as less impressive in contrast, even if it is still good.
The successive contrast effect can influence the perceived value of a product or service during sales discussions. If a smart salesperson initially provides a lower-priced product and then a higher-priced one, the higher-priced product may appear more valuable compared to the cheaper item. Similarly, if a salesperson first provides a high-priced product, followed by a lower-priced one, the lower-priced product may appear less valuable in contrast.
7 ways to avoid the contrast effect in the workplace
If leaders and hiring managers do not avoid contrast bias in the workplace, it can result in a number of negative outcomes, including poor decision-making, missed opportunities, and a negative workplace culture.
Fortunately, there are ways that employers can help avoid the contrast effect in their team. Here are seven tips for creating an environment free from the harmful impacts of negative contrast effects.
Establish objective criteria for performance reviews
Having clear and objective criteria for performance evaluations can help to counteract the impact of contrast bias. This can help to ensure that evaluations are based on relative facts, rather than comparing to previous employees.
One way an employer can establish objective criteria for performance reviews is to implement a point-based evaluation system. This system would assign points to specific criteria related to job performance, such as accuracy, work ethic, productivity, and technical skills. The employers could then rate their employees on a scale from 1 to 5 based on how well they meet these criteria.
Take a break
Taking a break between evaluating employees can help to reset the evaluator's frame of reference and minimize the impact of the contrast effect. This type of bias can cause evaluators to unintentionally compare employees to each other, rather than evaluating each individual based on their own merits and strengths.
By taking a break between evaluations, the evaluator can reset their frame of reference and avoid the potential biases that can arise from making comparisons. This allows them to approach each evaluation with a fresh perspective, and to focus on the individual employee's performance and potential, instead of comparing them to previous candidates or employees.
Additionally, taking a break can also help to prevent evaluators from becoming mentally fatigued, which can increase the risk of making mistakes or oversights. This is especially important for evaluators who are reviewing multiple employees in a short period of time, as the mental demands of the task can become overwhelming and increase the risk of error.
Use visual aids
Using visual aids, such as graphs or charts, can help to provide a clearer picture of an employee's performance, making it easier to see their progress over time. This can help to prevent the contrast effect and allow managers to evaluate more accurately.
For example, a manager who is evaluating the sales stats of a team of employees could use a bar graph to visualize the sales figures for each employee. This can help to quickly and easily see who is performing well and who may be in a position of needing additional support or coaching. By visualizing the data, the manager can avoid the temptation to make subjective comparisons based on the contrast effect, and instead focus on the relative, objective data and the performance of each individual employee.
Get a second opinion
A second opinion can help to reduce the impact of the contrast effect by providing an alternative perspective that is less likely to be influenced by the same biases and assumptions. This can help to ensure that evaluations are more objective and accurate and that employees are being judged based on their own skills and potential, rather than being compared to something they have no control over.
For example, if a manager is evaluating the accomplishments of several employees, they could seek the input of a colleague or a supervisor to provide a second opinion. This could help to identify any areas where the manager may be unconsciously influenced by the contrast effect, and provide a more balanced evaluation.
Getting feedback from a third party can also help to increase the transparency and fairness of the evaluation process, as it provides a check against any potential bias or contrast error in the evaluation. This can help to build trust and confidence among employees and improve the overall quality of the evaluation process.
Complete blind resume reviews
A blind resume review process involves removing any personal information that could bias the reviewer, such as the candidate's name, gender, ethnicity, or educational background. Conducting blind resume reviews can help to minimize the impact of contrast bias in the hiring process. This can ensure that hiring managers complete candidate-based reviews that are centered on qualifications and experience, rather than their own personal biases.
If you would like to implement this method and prevent unconscious bias from affecting hiring in your organization, start by establishing and communicating clear guidelines for reviewers, including the criteria that will be used to evaluate the resumes, such as relevant experience, skills, and achievements. Use a standardized format for the resumes, such as a specific template or set of headings, to ensure that other candidates are evaluated on the same criteria. You should also consider using a scoring system, such as a rating scale or a set of checklists for example, to ensure that while interviewing candidates all evaluations are objective and consistent.
Provide training sessions
Employee training workshops on the impact of the contrast effect can help to improve awareness of the problem and offer staff strategies to avoid it. This can aid in ensuring that staff makes decisions based on accurate and unbiased assessments.
Partnering with a business coach or mentor, for instance, can offer guidance and training to help employees become aware of the impact of contrast effect bias. This can help to ensure that they are better equipped to manage their own behavior in order to make decisions that are not influenced by comparison culture.
Apply “chunking” during the resume screening process
"Chunking" during the resume screening process refers to dividing a large amount of information into smaller, more manageable chunks or sections, for the purpose of review and evaluation. This technique is used to help reviewers quickly and efficiently identify the most relevant information and assess the candidate's qualifications and experience.
For example, during the resume screening process, a reviewer might chunk the information into sections such as education, work experience, skills, and achievements. This allows the reviewer to find the perfect hire by quickly scanning the candidate pool and focusing on the information that is most relevant to the job position they are hiring for.
The contrast effect can have a significant and often unseen impact on our personal and professional lives, influencing our perceptions, decisions, and evaluations. Whether we are comparing ourselves to others or evaluating the performance of our colleagues, the contrast effect can lead to skewed judgments and inaccurate assessments.
It is important to be aware of when both positive and negative contrast effect occurs and to understand how this bias can impact our perceptions and decisions. By recognizing the influence of the contrast effect, we can assume responsibility for our own tendencies to compare, take steps to minimize its impact, and ensure that our evaluations and judgments are fair, accurate, and objective.
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About Remy Meraz
Remy Meraz is a visionary leader and dedicated entrepreneur with a passion for driving positive change. As the co-founder and CEO of Zella Life, an on-demand coaching platform, Remy is working to close the diversity and gender gaps she has personally experienced as a woman of color. Through her innovative platform, she is providing businesses and individuals with critical personal and professional development tools that are improving entire workplace ecosystems and transforming the future of work.
Recognized for her contributions and impact in the startup world, Remy was named a 2022 Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund recipient. Her entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to social impact make her a powerful force in the business community. With Zella Life, Remy is creating new opportunities for growth and success for people from all backgrounds.