Avoid distinction bias

You about to buy a new music player for your living room. In the store you examine different models from different brands, until you narrow your selection to two: first one sounds better than the second one, but the second one would look better in your living room. As a rational human being you decide that the better sound is more important, so you buy the first one.

After using that music player for a few weeks, it keeps bothering you that it doesn’t match your interior. Was buying this speaker was the right choice?

The concept of distinction bias states that we value things differently when we evaluate them in direct comparison rather than on a single basis. The juxtaposition between two music players creates a false notion that we would be happier with the better sounding one, but because we are not comparing sound at home with other music players, the sound quality starts to lose its importance. And because we see our new music player frequently in our home, we continue to subconsciously evaluate its design.

Another example that most of us experience is when we buy a new smartphone. When we make a switch, the new phone is faster, have more features and look much better. We think, “How could I use that old smartphone for so long?”. Distinction bias is in effect: only in direct comparison we see the difference, but if we stayed on our old smartphone, we wouldn’t feel that way. After some time the effect of distinction bias fades and our new smartphone becomes a new regularity.

How could we avoid situations like this and be happy about our choices in the long run? We should not only predict our future experiences, but also simulate single evaluation when making predictions. In speaker example, we should evaluate those two speakers by having a sensible amount of time between them, so the disposition effect would fade as much as possible: listen to the first one and only after a couple of days listen to the other. If you do not notice a big difference between them, there’s a good chance that you’ll be happier with the better looking one.

Rolandas Barysas
Hello, my name is Rolandas Barysas. I write software for a living, splitting my time between freelancing and personal projects.