The Power of Perceptual Contrast

In 1974 Philippe Petit walked a high-wire, unassisted and without a safety net, strung between the tops of the Wold Trade Centre’s twin towers.  Petit and his team’s preparations to accomplish this feat spanned six years and included constructing a scale model, access and entry planning, learning how to accommodate weather effects and how to rig a cable across the span.  Petit even rented a helicopter to take aerial photographs.  On this final point, Petit was reported to have said, after completing his incredible performance, that having had the opportunity to see things from the vantage point of the helicopter helped, as it had made the actual wire seem not as high.  Why? Because of the principle of perceptual contrast.

We, as humans, perceive and experience things as enhanced or diminished, depending on our prior exposure to comparative stimuli.  Put simply, we are constantly comparing things, seeing them as better or worse, more or less expensive, easier or more difficult etc, depending on what has come before.  The principle applies to all sorts of perceptions and there have been numerous studies done on its effect.  If we place one hand in cold water, one hand in hot, then immediately place both hands in room temperature water, the room-temperature water will actually feel different to each hand depending on which water it was previously immersed in.  Lift something heavy and then lift something lighter, the lighter object will feel far lighter than it ordinarily would.  We are even inclined to rate someone as less attractive if we have just been in the company of someone far more so.

If they are clever, marketers, salespeople and other influence professionals use this principle to exploit our psychological susceptibility.  The retail clothier sells us the accessory (the tie, the matching earrings) after we’ve committed to purchasing the more expensive item (the suit, the necklace), the accessory appearing far cheaper in comparison.  In a similar vein, the car salesman pitches us the after-market options (the metallic paint, the satellite navigation) after already having closed us on the big ticketed car.  The restaurateur deliberately includes a few extremely expensive items on the menu and has us read through them before ordering.

Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit in 1974. Source: Galaxy fm via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0

The principle also plays an important role in negotiation and dispute resolution.  It is common for one side to make an extreme offer or demand (attempting to anchor the discussion) before eventually shifting by making one or more ‘concessions’, the conceded position now appearing more palatable than it otherwise would.  The principle also underlies why another commonly used difficult tactic – good guy bad guy – often works as a persuasive tool.  It is useful to turn your mind to how your perspective is continually affected by comparative stimuli.  Is it altered regarding a party and/or their behaviour because you’re subconsciously comparing it to a prior interaction with them, or to one you’ve just walked out of in your busy day of deal-making?  Is a proposal or an option for resolution you’re considering made more or less attractive based on what else you have been proximately presented?  Is it worth reality testing your client’s estimation of their best alternative, shifting their perception about the merits of the deal on the table?

As a preparation and skill development tool the principle is also incredibly useful.  Negotiators who focus on what they hope to achieve are more likely to obtain superior outcomes to those who focus on what they hope to avoid.  So setting ambitious targets or goals can assist, as without them natural points of comparative reference often end up as reservation prices or alternatives.  Using contrast can also help practitioners manage their emotions.  Doing something immediately prior to entering into negotiation to put the interaction and its potential consequences into broader perspective, can help reduce real-time emotional overwhelm and reaction.  Taking the time to do a mock run through of an upcoming negotiation, ideally with someone standing in for the other side and being intentionally difficult, can help prepare for the interaction, particularly in terms of minimising surprise.  The often quoted sports adage ‘train harder than you play’ rings true.  Have someone practice active listening with a partner who is instructed to speak on a topic which they (the listener) hold a particularly vehement opposing view, and watch communication skills improve.  Have them role-play a difficult exercise involving multiple parties with multiple issues and notice how they begin to see less complex bi-lateral negotiations as suddenly more manageable.  Ask them to complete assessments that are more challenging than they will actually be required to complete, and hear ex post facto that for them the one that mattered felt far easier than anticipated.  In general, increase pressure, difficulty and challenge someone over and above what they will ever need to face, accompany it with real-time feedback and strategies for improvement, and watch skills increase and performance improve.

So whether you are negotiating your next purchase or agreement, advising your client on the merits of a deal, formulating a training session or assessing one person’s performance immediately after another’s, consider the principle of perceptual contrast, consider what has come before and whether you are making decisions based on cogent rational grounds, or being swayed by something else entirely.  For we are comparison machines and the contrast principle is a powerful programmer.


Written by Tom Harber

Tom Harber, LLB(Hons)(Monash), BCL(Dist)(Oxon), MBA(Dist)(Melb), is a Harvard trained expert on negotiation and influence. He has worked as a lawyer, manager and performance coach and has chief-examined the negotiation skills courses for Monash University Law Faculty since 2012.


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