Quick Hit: The difference between choosing among attractive vs. unattractive options
Most consumer products or purchases have some level of positives and negatives and choices are often made by a weighing of the option’s attributes.
There is a concept called the “attraction effect” – which states that when you introduce a third, inferior option into a binary choice as a decoy, the next closest (and more attractive) alternative will grab a bigger share of interest as compared to what it would get if there were only two options.
Imagine a consumer is choosing between speaker systems. Choice A sounds really good but is underpowered. Choice B sounds worse than Choice A, but has more power. If a third alternative is introduced that sounds just as good as Choice A but is even more underpowered, studies have shown that this would lead to more people choosing A vs if it were a simple choice between A and B. (The addition of the decoy makes A look better than it would otherwise.)
But what happens when all the choices are viewed unfavorably? What if – as so many voters say – they all suck?
According to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Selin Malkoc, William Hedgcock, and Steve Hoeffler, The answer is twofold:
First – people facing a myriad of unattractive choices seem to spend more effort evaluating their choices than they would in a choice among attractive alternatives – and tend to be more focused on preventing harm from their choice and/or minimizing their unhappiness.
Secondly – the attraction effect is lessened when all the choices are undesirable.
Let’s start by considering the impact of the attraction effect on a potential race scenario in which there are reasonably attractive alternatives (i.e. in a primary). Most people voting in a primary are likely politically informed… and perhaps party stalwarts who would find at least one alternative a modestly attractive choice.
In this scenario – it would seem that the attraction effect could work towards the favor of one of the candidates, perhaps bolstering one that would otherwise lose a head to head. (By seeming to be more attractive compared to a decoy.) Conventional wisdom might say that a third candidate, inferior to yours but closer to your position – could draw votes away. However, the attraction effect would state that the presence of the decoy would actually help accentuate your candidate’s appeal.
The tactics would be different when dealing with a dissatisfied electorate – or a voter that views all of the choices as terrible. It could be a general election where there are social peer pressures to vote – or a choice based in anger against someone (but not for their alternative).
First, you’ll have to assume that the attraction effect is nullified (there is no attraction!) and that similar, but inferior candidates would be more likely to take votes away. Perhaps in a scenario such as this, you need to work harder to introduce positive messaging in your candidate than you would in a scenario where voters already see the positives.
In the former (attractive) scenario, there might be less incentive to go after the third (similar but inferior candidate). In the latter (unattractive) scenario, there would be more cause to attack reduce their effect.