The ‘contrast effect’: How to stand out or outshine others



A YOUNG, beautiful and jobless woman from an impoverished family marries an average, but educated and gainfully employed man, choosing him over a couple of other jobless suitors in a slum community. Automatically this newly wed husband becomes a welcome, instant celebrity in the woman’s family.

The same thing could happen to a balikbayan (someone who has lived or worked abroad for a long time and comes back to his or her home country for good). Back in his or her hometown, this Filipino could become popular enough because of the foreign expertise or wealth he or she must have gained abroad, to be elected mayor of the local municipality, beating the traditional, unschooled rivals.

Or imagine a foreigner who cannot carve out a successful career back home and goes to a third-world country where people and organizations exhibit obvious colonial mentality. You know how it goes – the locals hand over the responsibility to the foreigner, trusting his untested abilities in a local setting or culture, until they realize too late that they have made a mistake.

Likewise, how would you make a hiring decision if your shortlist has two young women, assuming all things in their CVs being equal and with both having aced their interviews, except one of them has the height and a great personality? I’m sure you’re tempted to hire the more attractive one.

These four stories are prime examples of the “contrast effect.” Many of us judge something on the basis of externalities, or favor the one who is admirable, beautiful and desirable, compared with another who is plain-and-old-looking. It is a common fallacy in perception that leads us to the wrong decision.

“This bias can distort your judgments when you are meeting someone for the first time, for example, during an employment interview. Since we don’t have any other cues to help us set context, we often compare the person we are interviewing with the previous candidate. This can, however, lead to a contrast effect. If the previous candidate was particularly good, it may make the current candidate look particularly bad, or the reverse,” according to Colleen Sharen, a management professor in a university in Ontario.

In modern diplomacy, the contrast effect has been described in the following examples: “Israel is lauded as the only true democracy in the Middle East. South Korea is seen in high esteem in its sharp distinction from its bellicose neighbor to the north in the form of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Germany has gained an image as a welcoming society since taking in the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who its European Union counterparts turned away.

“And neutral Switzerland is much celebrated in light of the historically war-prone neighbors which surround it in continental Europe. The negative image of one state, or indeed more states, can make another seem rather more positive,” according to Bhazo Ndzendze in Choosing the ‘Better Evil’? The Contrast Effect and the Relative Nature of Soft Power (March 23, 2017).

The contrast effect is man’s weak spot. It makes something better or worse, depending on the situation where man is situated. Further, it makes ordinary and gradual change unnoticeable. More than 15 years ago, when I was riding a jeepney, the person sitting next to me whose unremarkable appearance I can’t remember now kept coughing without covering his mouth. This prompted me to cover my mouth and looked away from his peripheral vision. It turned out that the man was a pickpocket who successfully took my Nokia 3210 that was neatly tucked inside my belt bag, despite the fact that it was covered by my gray polo barong. The pickpocket made my phone vanish almost simultaneously when he coughed (ordinary occurrence) as he divested me of my Nokia, a pricey mobile phone at that time.

But look. Imagine the world without the contrast effect. A sale at a department store cannot attract customers if the price tags do not show 50 percent off, or 70 percent off for instance. After all, most customers don’t bother to check if the original price had been manipulated to make the huge discount possible without a corresponding dent on the sales revenue.

Again, the contrast effect is situation-specific. To benefit from it all, you need to use a simple approach. If you’re an average-looking man or woman, better choose the company of a tribe of ugly members. Join a group with mediocre participants and you will surely stand out. Or if you’re in that group and don’t want to be outshone, watch out for a better-looking person familiar with the trick that seeks to join in and prepare to reject his or her application.

If you can’t win it, simply fade away.

If you’re a student with an average intelligent quotient, but would want to get any of the Latin honors, you simply enrol in a below-average university to beat the rest. That’s easy. In any government, promote good governance in a bureaucracy of thieves, and surely, you’ll be shot to death or pushed to oblivion, whichever comes first.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts on Elbonomics.


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