Understanding Distinction Bias in Decision Making

Distinction Bias

By comparing two products or life choices side-by-side, you may be undermining your ability to make the best decision. Psychological research points to how distinction bias can prevent you from accurately predicting how much happiness an item or life decision will provide.

How does distinction bias work? And what does it look like? The following sections take a deeper look at distinction bias.

Distinction Bias: A Definition

Evaluating choices is typically done qualitatively. Distinction bias occurs when magnifying small quantitative differences between two options in a direct comparison. The bias places too much qualitative value on small differences that have little value, such as a technological product or an important life decision.

Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explains that people compare and experience options differently. Someone may make choices in joint-evaluation (or comparison) mode, but actual experiences typically take place in the single-evaluation (or experience) mode.

When analyzing two options, people tend to be preoccupied by quantitative values they believe will impact their happiness. However, after deciding, people are almost exclusively in single-evaluation mode. That means they’re not still comparing how life would be if they had the other option; they’re simply experiencing their choice.

Distinction Bias: Examples

Participants in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology were given a choice: receive a small piece of chocolate for recalling a success in their lives or receive a large piece of chocolate for recalling a failure in their lives. Researchers analyzed how people made their choices and how they felt throughout their experiences.

About two-thirds of people opted for a greater reward, even though it required a negative memory. These people were significantly less happy than those who opted for a positive memory in exchange for chocolate.

Authors of the study paralleled results of the chocolate experiment with another common scenario. “In real life, many people think that more money would bring greater happiness and choose to, or encourage others to, endure hard work in order to obtain more money, yet more money may not bring more happiness.” For instance, people are likely to overestimate the difference between earning $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

Comparison versus experience mode helps put things in perspective. Imagine a realtor who takes a home buyer to see different houses on the market. Immediately, the buyer will be in comparison mode, even if the person visits one house, because the buyer might compare it to his or her current residence. However, after the home-buying process is complete, the person will be in experience mode. Small but pricey differences from comparison mode won’t be relevant any longer.

She may say, “The new house has higher ceilings and a bigger kitchen than my current home, and I would feel so much better if I could live in this house.” On the other hand, after a person has purchased a home and lives in it, she is mostly in [single-evaluation or experience mode] of that home alone.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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