Quit While You’re Ahead

Four ways to avoid the business mistake you don’t even know you’re making.

By Christopher Bonanos


What we perceive as a bargain is very different from what is a bargain. We are atavistic creatures, and even after we do all the arithmetic and reasoned thinking possible, our lizard brains are sometimes still making the judgment calls.

Say you’re buying a fancy camera, and you’re offered two package deals: the camera itself, or the camera plus a couple of packs of batteries plus a little certificate for cheapo printing at the local drugstore kiosk. Both packages cost the same. You should pick the offer with the freebies, right? Yet a study published in the October Journal of Consumer Research finds most of us will prefer the opposite. Instinctually, A + B + C is somehow worth less than just plain A.

How can that be? The study, conducted by three marketing and psychology professors (and incorporating six experimental tests), calls this “the presenter’s paradox.” Here’s the gist: A few items of low value — or, to be precise, perceived low value — are not lagniappes but losers, and drag down everyone’s opinion of the good stuff.

By the same token, when you put absolutely everything that might catch a recruiter’s eye on your post-college résumé (glee club! bartending license!) you were making yourself look weaker, not stronger. Better to list your MBA and your fluent French and then drop the mic. Otherwise, you risk running into both the presenter’s paradox and the better-known “paradox of choice,” where you offer a wealth of options and leave your audience flailing and indecisive.

Kimberlee Weaver, a professor at Virginia Tech who’s the first author on the study, agrees the findings are counterintuitive. “What we think is happening,” she explains, “is that the presenter, who’s creating the bundle, and the evaluator play different cognitive roles. The evaluator is looking at the big picture, asking ‘How do I like this group of items?’ and looking at the components and blending them in a holistic way. In buying, say, a bedroom set, the bed is nice, the dresser is OK, and the set is somewhere in the middle. The whole is being considered and averaged. To the presenter, things are independent and they each add up in value.”

What you can do about this isn’t so obvious. You can’t leave out too much, because you’ll lose customers who are looking for specific things. You can’t overcrowd your presentation and hope everything’s considered a positive, because then you’ll end up with what software writers call “feature bloat” — one of those programs whose capabilities are immense but comes with a main screen straight out of Hoarders: Buried Alive. A few ideas for avoiding the presenter’s paradox:

Keep the standard up. Try to adopt that averaging point of view, and sweat the details. Everything your business offers has to hold up its end. If you run, say, a publishing enterprise such as a blog, the captions have to be as sharply written as the stories. Don’t put a finely designed product in cheap surroundings. (When you get a turquoise package from Tiffany, or for that matter a new iPhone, even the shopping bag has been crafted to feel valuable.) The high quality doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive; it just has to suggest care and attention.

Edit ruthlessly. Brevity, always a virtue, is doubly so when you’re trying to avoid watering down your impact. Matt Eventoff, principal of Princeton Public Speaking, in Princeton, N.J., says: “This is stuff we’ve all known instinctively — anyone who’s sat in a corporate meeting over the past 20 years, with slide after slide after slide of information. It can be very powerful information, but it’s overwhelming — you don’t know what it’s saying. ‘Are we in good shape or in bad shape?’ You can’t tell. When all the points of your presentation don’t back up your streamlined theme, you really risk losing people and also potentially turning them off.”

Have a sense of proportion. If you can’t drop everything that feels less than ideal, Weaver also suggests that “the percentage might matter — the overall amount of mildly favorable vs. highly favorable. We have not spent a lot of time working with the numerosity, but I think that’s a reasonable possibility.” In other words, if you can’t avoid the weak stuff, make the good stuff heavily outweigh it.

The Ginsu approach. Weaver calls this two-step approach “sequential” presentation. You can say, “We’ll give you this ... and then we’ll also give you this.” In other words, if you’re stuck selling schlock, four magic words may get you through: “But wait! There’s more!”


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