What is... | January 12, 2018

What is the centre-stage effect?

If presented with a set of choices, we tend to prefer the one in the middle.


Imagine you’re at the supermarket choosing a bottle of washing-up liquid. In a row of products, which are you likely to reach for? 

In all likelihood it’s the one in the middle – this is known as the centre-stage effect. Dr Paul Rodway, a researcher at the University of Chester, UK, said the phenomenon can affect our choices in all kinds of areas.

The science behind it
He and his colleagues asked 100 people to evaluate 17 rows of pictures – both horizontal and vertical – and say which they preferred. 

They found that more people favoured items located in the middle of the row than chance would dictate.

"People may not be aware of this preference, but it may influence choice in a wide range of day-to-day settings, such as the products people buy in shops or via online shopping, the responses they provide in surveys, and potentially the people they select for a range of tasks or functions,” Dr Rodway explained.

We choose the middle option because we tend to assume it is the most popular one and are swayed by other people’s choices, according to research by Ana Valenzuela and Priya Raghubir published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. 

“Selling” a belief
When out shopping, we assume that shopkeepers put their most popular products in the middle of a display – so we prefer those ones too. The effect is even greater when we’re choosing what to buy for other people, the researchers found.

It’s not just products, though. People may be judged differently if they sit or stand in the centre of a group, said Valenzuela and Raghubir.

They found this effect after analysing episodes of a TV quiz show, The Weakest Link, in which the aim is to identify the strongest members of a group and eliminate the weaker members.

Contestants – assigned at random to starting positions in a semi-circle – were much more successful if put in the central positions. In fact, central players won the game almost half the time (45%), while those in the extreme positions won only 10% of the time.

Sitting centre-stage
Other contestants used their belief that “important people sit in the middle” as a rule of thumb in choosing people rather than using individual information about each person, the researchers suggest.

So next time you’re called to an important meeting, or selected for a group interview, try and sit as centrally as you can. Your success might just depend on it.

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eZonomics team
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