Use the Contrast Principle to Encourage Selection of a Choice You Prefer

21.12.2016 |

Episode #8 of the course Psychological tools and traps in negotiation by George Siedel


Welcome to the eighth lesson of the course. The key message in this lesson: you should use the contrast principle to encourage your counterpart to select an option that you prefer.

When I purchased my first house, a real estate agent showed me the ugliest house I have ever seen. It needed considerable repairs and had a high price. I told the agent that I wasn’t interested. She then took me to a house that was attractive, but also needed lots of repairs and had a high price. Again, I told her I wasn’t interested. Then she took me to an attractive house that was well-maintained—and it too had a high price. I immediately said, “I’ll take it.”

What had she done to me psychologically? In real estate language, she had first taken me to “set-up” properties. In the language of psychology, she had trapped me by using the contrast principle. She realized that the third house would look quite different when shown in contrast to the first two than it would look in isolation. Had she taken me only to the third house, I would not have been interested because of the high price.

The contrast principle is well known to retailers. For example, an executive in my negotiation seminar managed a high-end store in Singapore that sold purses for upwards of a thousand dollars. She directed her employees to place men’s neckties next to the purses. Sales of the neckties were brisk because, although the ties were expensive, they looked cheap in comparison to the purse prices.

The contrast principle is vividly illustrated by the following letter from a college student to her parents. There are many versions of this letter. One version is quoted in the Cialdini book; this one is from this site.

Dear Mom and Dad,

It has now been three months since I left for college. I am sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date but before you read on you had better sit down. Okay?

I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and concussion I got when I jumped out of my apartment window when it caught fire after my arrival here is pretty well healed. I only spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get these sick headaches once a day. Fortunately the fire and my jump were witnessed by Roger, an attendant at the gas station, and he was the one who called the fire department. He also visited me in the hospital, and since I had nowhere to live he was kind enough to invite me to share his apartment with him. He is a very fine man, and we are planning to get married. We haven’t set the date yet, but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show. His divorce is final now, and he shares custody of his 3 children.

The reason for the delay in our marriage is that Roger has a minor infection which prevents us from passing our premarital blood tests, and I carelessly caught it from him. This will soon clear up with the penicillin injections I am taking daily.

Now that I have brought you up to date I want to tell you that there was no fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, I do not have syphilis, and there is no divorced man in my life. However, I am getting a “D” in Art and an “F” in Biology and I wanted you to see these marks in the proper perspective.

Your loving daughter,

While Jane is having difficulties with Art and Biology, she should do very well in future negotiations because she clearly understands the contrast principle!

In the next lesson, we cover the importance of taking a big-picture perspective during negotiations.

Best, George


Recommended book

Negotiating for Success: Essential Strategies and Skills by George Siedel, pages 79-82


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