If there really was a book of all of the tricks people use to get away with things, the oldest one has to be causing a diversion. It works, and knowing why is important on the job—not just in the movies.
In television shows and on the big screen, characters who need to do something illicit will often try to distract everyone else so they can do their deed unnoticed. This is so common that the website TVTropes has page after page devoted to the concept.
Social psychologists have a term for it too. It’s called the decoy effect, and it’s the last in our list of essential cognitive biases every professional should know.
This distraction is about getting in the middle of an existing choice. Blogger Jeremy Smith gives a great explanation:
Here’s how it works. When you have two options, users are forced to make a decision. They can choose the small option for less money, or the big option for more money. It’s a tough decision. They want more awesome, but don’t want to spend more money. So what do they do? They generally spend less money.
Ah, but now enter the decoy effect. The decoy effect involves adding a third option — the decoy. The decoy is priced close to the more expensive option, suggesting that the more expensive option is actually better. It’s kind of like a middle option, but it’s so skewed that it makes it seem stupid not to go for the higher-priced option.
One of the most famous examples of the effect was first popularized by university professor Dan Ariely who noted the prices for The Economist magazine:
- Web Subscription – $59
- Print Subscription – $125
- Web and Print Subscription – $125
Why would anyone pick the second option? In studies of consumer behavior, no one does. People are more likely to pick the “web and print subscription” because it looks like a better deal. But if you remove the print-only choice, customers tend to gravitate toward the cheaper end.
Putting The Decoy Effect To Work
There are a million examples of this in consumer behavior. Next time you consider buying an online service, take a look at the pricing options. You’re also probably seeing versions of this technique at the grocery store. Do you notice how products come in a variety of sizes, and they are often structured to get you to spend more money?
But the decoy effect is really about something more fundamental: an irrelevant option isn’t actually irrelevant. Think about the magazine subscription example. There should be no effect by adding that other choice—it’s obviously a bad deal. So why is it so effective?
The reason is that having other options forces us to evaluate them, and we start out thinking all options have equal weight. Even after one can be discarded, it’s hard for it not to impact those that remain.
This means you can influence people’s behavior by adding decoys. However, you can also improve decision making by removing decoys. A few examples:
- Are there multiple piles of papers on your desk? Are all of them really equally important?
- Is every email in your inbox worthy of the same level of attention, or are lots of them junk?
- Are you trying to give everyone the same amount of your time, or are some people more relevant to your current projects?
There are tons of decoys in our professional lives. Most of them aren’t put there maliciously. But if we can find a way to cut them out and focus on what’s really important we will be more satisfied and more productive.
Watch out for those distractions!