Too bad, nothing is less is true! Decisions are strongly influenced by the way we present our proposals.
In a splendid TED Video Presentation called ‘Are we in control of our own decisions‘ (half an our fun and learning!) , Dan Ariely, an Israeli professor of behavioral economics and head of the eRationality research group at the MIT Media Lab, shows the astonishing effect of how decisions can be fundamentally changed by adding dummies in proposals:
Ariely tested the next ad on the website of the Economist.com on a group of 100 MIT students:
As expected, most students wanted the combo deal (84%). Students can read, so nobody wanted the middle option.
But now, if you have an option nobody wants, you can take it off. Right? So Ariely tested another version of this ad on another group of students, eliminating the middle option. This is what happened:
Now the most popular option (84%) suddenly became the least popular (32%). And the least popular (16%) became the most popular (68%) option.
What happened was that the ‘useless’ option in the middle, was useless in the sense that nobody wanted it. But it wasn’t useless in the sense that it helped people figure out what they wanted. In fact, relative to the option in the middle, which was get only the print for $125, the print and web for $125 looked like a fantastic deal. And as a consequence, people chose it.
The general idea here is that we actually don’t know our preferences that well. And because we don’t know our preferences that well we’re susceptible to all of these influences from the external forces.
People believe that when they see somebody, they immediately know whether they like that person or not. Ariely decided to put this statement to the test.
He showed his students a picture of Tom and a picture of Jerry (real people in practice). Then he asked “Who do you want to date? Tom or Jerry?” But for half the people he added a slightly less attractive (photoshopped) version of Jerry. For the other half of the students he added a slightly less attractive (ugly) version of Tom.
Now the question was, will ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their respective, more attractive brothers?
The answer was absolutely YES. When ugly Jerry was around, Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular.
Conclusions: The Dummy Effect
What can we conclude from these two experiments?
- When you let people chose between two options, their decision might be positively influenced by adding a third ‘slightly less attractive version’ (the dummy) of the option you value as most favorable. So decisions are susceptible to options manipulation.
- Be aware of the Dummy-Effect when someone adds a dummy option in a choice you’ll have to make. If your decision without the dummy is not the same as with the dummy option, try to investigate why. Don’t take a decision until you’ve found out why.
- Both decisions, with or without dummies, are ‘rational’.
Therefore your ‘rational decision’ depends more than you’re inclined you think on the character, the completeness and the description of the options. Your personal preference becomes more or less irrelevant if the options are incomplete. So think twice about possible ‘missing options’ before you take a final decision.
From now on…
Now that you’ve become aware of this dummy-effect, life will never be the same again. You’ve become conscious of the way the options in a proposal can influence a decision. This gives you the opportunity to take more enriched decisions. It also places you in a more responsible position when you develop proposals for others. Straight proposals will be ‘cleaner’ than before (‘undummied’) and also include an explanation about the way a proposal is structured and presented.