Simply put, the human brain struggles to compare apples and oranges. Our brains are not wired to work that way. This inherent weakness is an advantage if you are trying to sell products or services. It’s a phenomenon known as the Decoy Principle. In essence, the principle is a psychological trick that can be played on customers to influence their choice and buying decision. The method is simple. You present customers with three or four alternatives which, at face value, seem comparable but in reality are not. In other words, one of the options won't be a real choice. It will be a decoy.
The decoy is often comparable to the option you want the customer to pick. For example, if you have an apple and an orange but you really want to sell the orange. You simply introduce another orange (a less appealing one) as a decoy. The customer’s brain will automatically only compare the two oranges and pick the better one. That is because our brains evolved to be efficient and lazy. It is far easy to compare two oranges than it is to compare an orange and an apple. It is far easier to compare two football players than it is to compare a football player and a tennis player. You can probably compare Ronaldo and Messi. But how do you compare Ronaldo and Roger Federer?
A couple of years ago, I was working for a travel agent, and we wanted to test the power of the decoy. So we created following advert for a weekend break.
Choose from our great short weekend break deals:
Weekend break in Milan - 4-star hotel (flights included) - £500
Weekend break in Paris - 4-star hotel (flights included) - £600
Weekend break in Paris - 4-star hotel (flights included, plus complimentary spa treatment and airport transfer) - £600
From the list above, which weekend break do you think would be the most popular among potential customers?
To find out, I ran an online survey of 110 people, asking them which option they would pick. The results were as follows:
Weekend break in Milan - 4-star hotel (flights included) - £500 (15)
Weekend break in Paris - 4-star hotel (flights included) - £600 (5)
Weekend break in Paris - 4-star hotel (flights included, plus complimentary spa treatment and airport transfer) - £600 (91)
As you can see from the results, the third option was the overwhelming choice with 82% of respondents choosing it over the other two options. As I suspected, the decoy (the middle option) was the least popular. Most respondents chose the third option thinking they were making a purely logical choice. They picked what appeared to be clearly the best deal on offer. Such is the power of the decoy. It is so stealth that it never occurs to customers (or respondents) that they are being ‘tricked’ into picking a particular option.
To the unsuspecting respondents, their brains could not make a comparison between Milan and Paris (oranges and apples), so the default was to compare the two Paris breaks which were obviously comparable. To the respondents’ brains, the two Paris deals were two slightly different 'oranges'. One ripe and juicy, the other not so much. And picking one over the other was a no-brainer. The third option clearly offered more for the same price as the second.
Who is better?
But to really test the power of the decoy, I carried out a second survey. This time, respondents were given only two options to choose from, leaving out the decoy. The results were:
Weekend break in Milan - 4-star hotel (flights included) - £500 (48)
Weekend break in Paris - 4-star hotel (flights included, plus complimentary spa treatment and airport transfer) - £600 (62)
As I suspected, the results, without the decoy, showed a better balance. Respondents took the time to actually decide if they preferred Milan or Paris. Their brains were not forced into comparing only two readily comparable Paris offers.
In another example, I helped a gym in London to run a campaign to sign up new members. To improve revenue and profits, the gym wanted customers to choose the expensive package (which cost more than double the price of the Basic Package.)
We ran the following advert:
Choose a gym membership that suits your budget and lifestyle:
Basic: Off-peak Access (includes use of sauna, steam room and swimming pool during those times: £15/month
Advanced: Unlimited access to the gym, sauna, steam room and swimming pool: £38/month
Advanced – Plus: Unlimited access to the gym, sauna, steam room and swimming pool – PLUS Free classes and free nutrition advice from our award-winning dietitian: £39/month
We ran the advert, first with the decoy (option 2 ) included and then for the second time without the decoy.
More than 70% of new members chose Option 3 (Advanced -Plus) when the decoy, Option 2 (Advance) was presented compared to only 24% when the two options were presented without the decoy.
The power of the decoy is unmistaken. It is especially effective if you want to sell off particular product or stock. It allows you to control customers’ choices without their knowledge – unless of course, the customers are you and I and aware of the trick. Even then, the decoy still works. It works on me all the time even if I recognise it.
As this trick falls squarely in the realm of psychological ‘manipulation’ some people have ethical and moral reservations about using it. But as an entrepreneur/business owner, you will be foolish to not give it any consideration.