Failing To Learn From History – How Perspective Is Relative

by Eric Samuels

The Contrast Principle explains how our perception is often relative. As a physical example, if we are standing in the dark and a flashlight is pointed in our face, we will estimate the brightness of the light to be significantly higher than had the room had been well-lit. As a psychological example, if we are conversing with a very attractive person who walks away and an unattractive person approaches and begins a conversation, the second person will seem far less attractive than they actually are.

If you’re curious, try this experiment.

Place a bucket of hot water on your left, a bucket of cold water on your right, and a bucket of room temperature water in the middle. Place your left hand into the hot water, and your right hand in the cold water. Now, remove your hands and place both in the room temperature water. The hand that was in the hot water will now feel like it is in cold water, and the hand that was in the cold water bucket will now feel like it is in hot water.

This automatic behaviour is one of many heuristic shortcuts that we apply to the world on a daily basis, and it can be both a benefit and a curse.

If, for instance, your budget for a new car is $35,000, yet you decide to first test drive an $90,000 sports car, the contrast principle will make subsequent test drives feel disappointing and inadequate. On the other hand, if you were to first drive a clunker, subsequent test drives of $35,000 vehicles, will make you feel much better about your budget and eventual car purchase. There are certainly other mitigating factors in being a satisfied car buyer, but all (other) things being equal, the contrast principle can have a profound effect on your perception and therefore your satisfaction.

In other words, there are few, if any absolutes; leaving our perception of the world relative to our experience and expectations. Like many behavioural patterns, this can be powerful ‘mojo’ to harness, particularly when attempting to persuade the decisions of others. Successful salespeople know this, often intuitively, and (rightly or wrongly) apply the principle in an effort to influence the decisions of customers. And the contrast principle is so powerful, that even when we realize it’s being applied to us, it’s hard to resist.

Equally, when you have bad news to share, it’s not a good idea to diminish the news in hopes of revealing or unleashing a little more over a period of time. Organizations know this when dismissing employees. Rather than spreading the anxious process over a period of days or weeks, efforts are made to have all of the dismissals occur at the same time.

Among the many blunders made by BP subsequent to the Deepwater Explorer explosion in the Gulf Of Mexico, was the attempt to downplay the amount of oil leaking from the damaged well. On April 20, BP claimed that 1,000 barrels of oil (42,000 gallons) was leaking into the Gulf. On May 14, the U.S. government upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day. May 27, scientists increased the estimate to between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day. June 10, that doubled to 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. Yesterday, the new estimate was 60,000 barrels a day – more than 2 and a half million gallons!

Added to BP’s many errors of judgment (an understatement), these horrendous ‘miscalculations’ have augmented, if not cemented public mistrust of virtually any claims made by the company. A taint to its reputation from which BP may never recover.

Could BP have reacted differently? Most certainly.

September 12, 1983, 12-year old Mary Kellerman died after taking extra strength Tylenol. In the next few days, a total of 7 deaths were attributed to tainted Tylenol. The parent company of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, acted swiftly and decisively, distributing warnings to hospitals and distributors, and halting Tylenol production and advertising. This was followed by a nation-wide recall of Tylenol – $100 million in product.

The press praised the company for “effectively demonstrating how a major business ought to handle a disaster.” A Washington Post article added “This is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company’s response did more damage than the original incident.”

While Tylenol ‘s market share initially plummeted from a high of 35% down to 8%, the company’s handling of the crisis and subsequent industry-leading security measures (the tainted pills were the result of tampering at the retail level), led Tylenol to become the #1 selling over-the counter analgesic in the U.S.

“Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.”

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

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