Contrast Effect (Cognitive Bias #5)

June 16, 2006

This is the enhancement or diminishment of a weight or other measurement when compared with recently observed contrasting object. [Wikipedia]
I think this is one of the more powerful and disturbing cognitive biases that we have to deal with.  Our brains are designed to notice change in value rather than value itself, and there are endless ways to trick us into thinking something is a good simply because it is not as bad as it used to be, and something is bad simply because it is not as good as it used to be

Another more dramatic name for this bias could be Value Blindness. We simply can't judge a things value in itself without having a context in which the value is determined.  Context serves as a bag of comparison possibilities.  Think about it for a second.  Do you realize that people purposefully limit their scope of understanding about the size and magnificence of the universe in order to keep their own significance in the universe in check?  We purposefully underestimate the amount of happiness and intelligence in the world in order to support our own sense of happiness and intelligence.  This isn't done with malicious intent, we simply have trouble believing in our own significance while also understanding our literal insignificance relative to the entire country, world, solar system, galaxy, and universe.  In some cases, feeling insignificant, feeling like a tiny speck in a grand universe, feeling like the tiniest almost invisible speck in all of space time, can lead to depression and maybe even suicide.  Words like insignificant, hopeless, impossible, and futile are a result of contrast effect with too large of a perspective of the world or too small of a perspective of yourself.

The reason that this is dangerous is because we know about it and people who have motivation to make things appear better or worse than they really are have a very simple tool to do so.  People can make money off of you with this bias. The most obvious examples are in marketing, with sales and aspirational items, and determining your status and wealth by comparing yourself to your neighbors, but like I mentioned already it can go very deeply into our own understanding of self and meaning.
What tools are there to help correct for the contrast effect? There is the brute force willpower way of correcting for it by making note of what you're comparing everything with.  But is it possible to stop noticing contrast in value?  I don't think it is.  We're doomed!  Haha.

One other stopgap duct tape option is to make sure you regularly calibrate your comparison systems.  Experience a wide range of lifestyles, philosophies, and attitudes towards your world.  Travel frequently and meet new people and try new things and keep as much variety in your life as possible.  This way, you can be sure to have a broad palette of comparisons available, and you can influence your comparisons to go in a direction of your choice.


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