How the Contrast Principle affects a 17yr old’s love life
When my younger sister came to visit me at university, conversation turned to the topic of boys; in particular, the one she fancied at school. Apparently the resident “sporty, popular” boy, (Boy A) had more than one admirer. When showing me a picture of my sister’s rival (Girl A), I commented that she was “pretty” and liked her hair (that didn’t go down well) but the topic changed before I could get myself in more trouble. However, on her next visit about a month later, Boy A had gotten another girls attention, namely, Girl B. The gossip and drama unfolded in front of me, but in the midst of comments like “she’s trying too hard”, my sister proceeded to show me a picture of Girl B. Stupidly, I didn’t learn from my previous mistake, and when asked for a comment, I replied with “gosh, she is stunning, she looks about 20 not 17”. Forgetting what Girl A looked like, I was shown another picture, however, this time my response was less enthusiastic, “she’s got a nice smile”. Sensing I said something wrong again, I asked my sister why she was looking puzzled; “I showed you her (Girl A’s) picture last time I came up and you said she was pretty?”. It was true, my opinion of Girl A had lessened even though I was shown the same picture; at work here was Cialdini’s (2007) contrast principle. Due to errors in human perception, we judge two objects differently if they are presented one after the other, as opposed to being presented at different times. We inherently make relative rather than absolute judgments, (Cervone & Peake, 1986). By manipulating the order in which the pictures were presented, Girl A was judged as less attractive than she actually is, because her photo was preceded by a slightly more attractive Girl B.
Research into the contrast principle includes Kenrick and Gutierres (1980) study how judgments on physical attractiveness is affected by prior stimuli. 81 male students watched an episode of “Charlie’s Angels” which features three beautiful actresses, and then were asked to rate the attractiveness of an ‘average’ female (via a photo). Results showed that participants rated the ‘average’ female as significantly less attractive than the control group who hadn’t been exposed to the TV episode. Furthermore, in an experiment where photographs of faces were presented singly, the same face elicited higher ratings of physical attractiveness (compared to the baseline) when a less attractive face was presented beforehand, (Wedell, Parducci & Geiselman, 1987).
The contrast principle could be applied in cases of cheating in relationships. In most cases, a person meets someone they are extremely attracted to, and when comparing his/her wife/husband to the attractive other, their spouses rating decreases. Hence, the excuse of “Im not attracted to you anymore” could be justified via the explanation of the contrast principle. I would imagine that this affect would be most prominent when the significant other and potential lover are in the same room as its then easier for humans to make a relative judgment and compare the two directly.
In sum, my perception of Girl A was influenced by the picture of Girl B even though it shouldn’t have been. The contrast principle is another example of human bias; we cannot help but be persuaded by contextual factors when making a decision. This behaviour change technique is popular in marketing/sales, particularly in property, (Cialdini, 2007) but can be applied to the simplest of decisions, IE, who do I fancy today?
Cervone, D., & Peake, P. K. (1986). Anchoring, efficacy, and action: The influence of judgmental heuristics on self-efficacy judgments and behavior. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 50(3), 492.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.
Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(1), 131.
Wedell, D. H., Parducci, A., & Geiselman, R. E. (1987). A formal analysis of ratings of physical attractiveness: Successive contrast and simultaneous assimilation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23(3), 230-249.