The less-is-better effect is a type of preference reversal that occurs when the lesser or smaller alternative of a proposition is preferred when evaluated separately, but not evaluated together. The term was first proposed by Christopher Hsee. The effect has also been studied by Dan Ariely.
In 1988 Christopher Hsee demonstrated the effect in a number of experiments: When both of the following options were offered separately participants preferred the lesser option. However, if they were judged together, participants preferred the other larger or more numerous option. For instance:
- seven ounces of ice cream overflowing in a small cup was preferred over eight ounces of ice cream in a much larger cup
- a dinnerware set with 24 intact pieces was preferred over a dinnerware set of 31 pieces with a few broken pieces
- a smaller dictionary was preferred over a larger dictionary with a torn cover
- participants perceived people giving away a $45 scarf as more generous than those who gave a cheap $55 coat.
Theoretical causes of the less-is-better effect include:
- counterfactual thinking. A study found that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists, apparently because silver invites comparison to gold whereas bronze invites comparison to not receiving a medal.
- evaluability heuristic and/or fluency heuristic. Hsee hypothesized that subjects evaluated proposals more highly based on attributes which were easier to evaluate (attribute substitution). Another study found that students preferred funny versus artistic posters according to attributes they could verbalize easily, but the preference was reversed when they did not need to explain a reason (see also introspection illusion).
- representativeness heuristic or judgment by prototype. People judge things according to average of a set more easily than size, a component of extension neglect.
- Hsee, Christopher K. (1998). "Less Is Better: When Low-value Options Are Valued More Highly than High-value Options". Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 11: 107–121. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(199806)11:2<107::AID-BDM292>3.0.CO;2-Y.
- Gibbs, Phil; Sugihara, Hiroshi. "What is Occam's Razor?". The Physics and Relativity FAQ. University of California, Riverside. Retrieved 20 October 2014.
- Medvec, V. H.; S. Madey & T. Gilovich (1995). "When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 603–610. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1243.
- Wilson, T. D.; J. W. Schooler (1991). "Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60: 181–192. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199.
- Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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