Imagine you’re at a restaurant and the waiter hands you a wine list.
There’s a £30 bottle, a £15 bottle and a £5 bottle.
So which do you go for? If you’re like most people, the middle option wins every time. That’s because most of us are subject to what behavioural scientists call “extremeness aversion”: a tendency to avoid choosing options that are at one extreme or the other.
We like to stick to the middle ground because it feels safer – and it’s something retailers like to take advantage off, according to William Poundstone, the author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value.
He argues that café chains like Starbucks use our extremeness aversion to nudge us into ordering more than they might do otherwise. By employing the “rule of three” and offering Tall (12oz) Grande (16oz) and Venti (24oz) coffees, new customers will instinctively order the middle choice – the Grande, he says.
But at 16oz, it is actually twice the size of a normal cup of coffee – so people are effectively ordering “two cups of expensive coffee”.
And it’s this idea that food outlets can determine our portion control by playing on extremeness aversion that has led some researchers to argue they are contributing to overeating and obesity.
A study by Duke University in the US carried out an experiment to simulate what happens when a food outlet drops a smaller sized drink from its menu.
They found that if the eaterie originally offers 12oz, 16oz, 21oz and 32oz options for soft drinks and then withdraws the 12oz option, many customers who originally drank the 16oz option suddenly start choosing the 21oz drink, because the 16oz is now the smallest – and most extreme – option.
They subsequently take in more calories.
It’s a technique also widely employed by charities in their fundraising efforts; they will often present three pre-set donation amounts in their appeals, with the aim of subtly directing donors to the middle amount.
Also referred to as the “compromise effect”, or “goldilocks effect”, the extremeness aversion effect overlaps with the decoy effect, or anchoring, where the introduction of an expensive option – a “bad deal” – makes the alternative option seem more appealing.
And a study which combined the findings of 142 previous studies found that extremeness aversion is one of the most robust theories in behavioural science: middle options are selected significantly more often than other options.
It doesn’t hold up in every situation, however. Take group decision-making, for instance. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that two women making a decision together, or a woman making a decision with a man, will generally go for the middle option.
However, men who are making decisions together won’t.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors of the study suggest that men do this in order to signal their masculinity to their male counterparts.
When making decisions with other men – who they have evolved to compete with – they are driven to behave in a way that is different to the feminine norm, which is to prioritise moderation, and instead prioritise extremity.
So next time you’re at a restaurant, or a store, think about the choices you’re being offered and whether your decision is being swayed by the extreme options in the line-up. The “small” may well be the “medium”.